BWW Reviews: Soulpepper's ANGELS IN AMERICA an Ambitious Triumph
Soulpepper's current production of Angels in America is a hot ticket in Toronto - receiving raves from critics and recently announcing an extension that will see it play The Young Centre for the Performing Arts through the end of September. A daring undertaking for Soulpepper, the nearly seven hour play by Tony Kushner is a departure from the 'classic' works that the company usually presents, but the gamble appears to be paying off.
The play is presented in two parts (which are available as a marathon performance on some days for the dedicated theatre goer). Millennium Approaches and Perestroika work together to tell Tony Kushner's intricate tale which is alternatively titled a 'Gay Fantasia on National Themes'. The show has only had one previous Toronto incarnation at Canadian Stage in the nineties, as well as a West End and Broadway production and an award winning HBO miniseries with an all-star cast. The chance to see it presented by such a skilled group of people is a treat for Torontonians, and the show does not disappoint.
Angels in America is set in 1985 in New York City at the beginning of the AIDS crisis. It mixes fiction and history, past and present, angels, demons, and the afterlife all into one complex but compelling story. All of the actors take on multiple roles, often playing against gender, age, and type, and the show explores serious issues such as religion, politics, homosexuality, love, and what it means to be a community.
Soulpepper Artistic Director Albert Schultz is front and centre on this project, directing the epic tale and bringing new life and humanity to the story. With a show of this length and complexity, much can go wrong if not handled correctly, but Schultz proves that when you do it right, it's magic. The tale envelops you to the point where you forget the length and become lost in the characters, and you begin to care about their journeys despite the fact that many of them are loathsome beings.
What makes this show work so well is not only its stellar direction, but its first rate cast. This group of eight actors has such an intense chemistry that they completely erased any memories I had of the 'all-star' HBO cast. They live and breathe the characters and each other, and there isn't a weak link in the bunch.
At the centre of the story is Prior Walter (played by Damian Atkins), the early AIDS victim and reluctant 'prophet' who sees an angel after being abandoned by his lover Louis. Watkins does a superb joy conveying Prior's pain, while also accentuating the incredible humour in the story. He has some of the play's funniest lines, and delivers them with comic timing that reminds you of his suffering while making you laugh out loud.
Diego Matamoros plays the 'real-life' character Roy Cohn, who was a closeted New York City lawyer who served with Joe McCarthy in the Senate and claimed responsibility for the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenburg during the Rosenburg trial of the 1950s. A cruel and despicable character, Matamoros manages to infuriate while also tapping into what little shreds of humanity can still be found within the character of Cohn. As he lay dying (proclaiming until his last breath that he had 'liver cancer' and not AIDS) one can't help but feel pity for the man who hated anything that resembled compassion, and that alone is a testament to Matamoros's acting chops.
Gregory Prest takes on the role of Louis, the man who leaves Prior as his AIDS begins to worsen (and runs straight into the arms of Mike Ross's closeted Mormon Joe Pitt).. Another completely unlikable character, Prest shows us all the darkness inside a man who hates himself perhaps even more than we hate him. Mike Ross' Joe Pitt is a stark contrast to Prest, attempting to be likable at any cost, including staying with his pill popping wife despite his homosexual urges. When he finally admits he is gay, you feel his pain and struggle as if it were your own.
As Pitt's wife Harper, Michelle Monteith is 'crazy' personified - and she does it brilliantly. Her descent into (and in a way out of) madness is a thing of beauty, and she embraces each quirky moment with a gusto typically reserved for an eleven o'clock number. I found it difficult to take my eyes off her in every scene she was in, and was rooting for her happiness by the end of the story.