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BWW Review: ACT 1's Otherworldly ANGELS IN AMERICA: PERESTROIKAMake no bones about it: the mind and imagination of playwright Tony Kushner (whose Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is playing at Nashville's Darkhorse Theatre, in a new production of from ACT 1) is nothing like yours or mine or that guy sitting at the table by the window at your neighborhood Starbucks, tip-tap-typing away at his laptop in hopes of capturing lightning in a bottle with his words or that woman waxing philosophical about the current political climate in this country while recapping the latest happenings on her favorite TV series for some obscure website. While we all have our moments and clarity and grace, our own all-too-brief moments of brilliance are short-lived and probably minor obfuscations exemplified by the tone of this review.

Kushner's brilliance as a theater artist is awe-inspiring and Angels in America stands head and shoulders above the scores of other dramatic scripts through which countless writers have struggled to bring into sharp focus the impact of AIDS in America and the emergence of the LGBTQ community as a political movement as the result of a medical pandemic that is still troubling and disheartening, at worst, and difficult to comprehend, at best. The world of which Kushner writes is filled with wonder and delight, heartbreak and sorrow - not so unlike the real world in which we all live and work and try to make sense of in our own way - but his is a universe that is beyond the limits of us regular folk still trying to come to terms with what we've lived through.

In Perestroika, the second half of Angels in America, Kushner examines more closely the political storm that accompanied the discovery of the AIDS virus and the world's reluctance to meet it headlong ("After all, it's killing all the right people," a character on the CBS sitcom Designing Women put it in one of the earliest treatments of the subject on mainstream television) and the apparent ignorance of scientific facts that too many people even today fail to grasp.

In fact, Kushner's world takes a decidedly science fictional turn in Perestroika, as he knits together the various pieces of the tapestry first seen under construction in Millennium Approaches, the initial offering in the Angels in America theatrical universe. The playwright utilizes all the tools in his amazing bag of theatrical tricks to create a world in which geopolitical issues dovetail into a consideration of theology, Mormon symbolism and contemporary world events as witnessed by - and experienced by - a small group of individuals whose interconnectedness seems at first blush to be unbelievable and strained, yet somehow (in the course of the play's action) is actually rather matter of act and pedestrian. "She's my ex-lover's lover's Mormon mother," is one way of looking at the madcap connections of the play's characters, who include Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg along with a mixed-bag of fictional personages who in one way or another become "everywoman" or "everyman" along the circuitous way to a post-pandemic world in which we now exist.

While an audience member who lived through the five-year era covered in the play (1985-1990) is likely to have a better grasp of the events taking place in front of them on Jim Manning's beautifully realized set, it's hardly a pre-requisite to feeling the impact of Angels in America: Perestroika in a visceral way. Director Lane Wright and his ensemble of eight actors (and the two Kabuki stagehands Trey Palmer and T.Josiah Haynes, who help propel the play's physical action forward) take up the challenge of Kushner's wildly inventive play and provide their audiences with much food for thought in the meantime.

Joe Blankenship and Macon Kimbrough in
Angels in America: Perestroika

-photo by Eric Ventress

Wright maintains a steady hand in guiding his cast through the various twists and turns of Kushner's plot, which careens around one hairpin curve after another, and they are all on the same page, as it were, which gives audience who have already seen Part One: Millennium Approaches a fresh perspective from which to experience the story. Scene changes in Perestroika don't flow as smoothly or as quietly as those transitions in the earlier stanza (that's live theater, for you), but they don't necessarily detract from the onstage drama. That there are more laughs in Perestroika than in Millennium Approaches could be viewed perhaps as gallows humor, to my way of thinking it seems more a part of the human nature to laugh in the face of adversity and to poke a finger in the eye of a God perceived to be long-absent from the world He supposedly created, thus allowing for the creation of a confounding, deadly disease with which to decimate the population.

ACT 1's decision to entrust Angels in America to two different directors (designer Manning helms Part One) and two different casts of actors not only spreads the theatrical wealth around, as it were, but also gives audiences the opportunity to see how different interpretations of the same subject matter can be advantageous and spiritually uplifting (if you're given to that sort of thing).

Macon Kimbrough plays the villain of the piece, Roy Cohn, with a biting fervor that is engaging and repellant, suggesting perhaps that all of those wily Disney villains are just as deviant and evil as we've always expected them to be. However, Kimbrough skillfully keeps his character grounded in a base reality that is even more chilling than any fictional character could ever be.

Cat Arnold, one of the region's most versatile actresses, very nearly steals every scene in which she is cast as, by turns, Ethel Rosenberg, a homophobic mother (the aforementioned "ex-lover's lover's Mormon mother") and Cohn's beleaguered physician. Arnold shows off her talents with a certain zealousness, to be certain, but she retains the control necessary to prevent a lapse into comedic hijinks.

Shawn Whitsell, as Belize - the former drag-queen, ex-lover of Prior and nurse to Roy Cohn - gives his character the requisite flamboyance and dazzling charm we've come to expect of our script-bound female impersonators, yet somehow blesses Belize with a very genuine sense of heart and more than a little soul to help ingratiate himself further with audiences.

As Louis, Matt Moran gives a nuanced performance throughout the play's three-and-one-half hours, shifting from overly dramatic to understated anguish from one moment to the next, while Shawn Cornelius' Prior is perhaps more accessible thanks to the humor with which he approaches the role and his commitment in bringing him to life no matter the severity of his ailments.

Joe Blankenship portrays Joe Pitt with a slight sense of wide-eyed wonderment that creates a chasm between his closeted gay man and the world through he attempts to tip-toe his way to self-acceptance. Cast in the difficult role of Harper (Kushner gives short shrift to women in Angels in America, a fact personified in the way he's written Joe's forlorn and Valium-addicted wife), Rachel Lynn Sweeney is confident and focused.

Hilary Morris skillfully portrays the eponymous Angel in Perestroika in such a way to depict her as both other-worldly and of this dimension, clad in Jennifer Kleine's diaphanously angelic costume.

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes; Part Two: Perestroika. By Tony Kushner. Directed by Jim Manning. Presented by ACT 1, in partnership with Carlton Cornett, LCSW and DeWayne Fulton, at Darkhorse Theater, Nashville. Through March 25. For tickets, go to Running time: 3.5 hours (with two 10-minute intermission).

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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis