BWW Reviews: First part of ANGELS Soars With Wit and Humanity

BWW Reviews: First part of ANGELS Soars With Wit and Humanity

The earth is shaking over at Greenville's Warehouse Theatre.

It's not just a bit of stagecraft wizardry, although that's part of it. The theatrical earthquake known as "Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes" has arrived.

Daring, poignant and often raucously funny, the Warehouse's production of Tony Kushner's two-part epic is a fitting vehicle to honor the 40th anniversary of the Upstate's gutsiest theater.

Kushner's Tony Award-winning 1993 play - about the intersection of the personal and political in the early days of the AIDS epidemic - is being presented in a sharp, detailed, go-for-broke staging by Jayce Tromsness.

Tromsness' stirring production spotlights some of the best work ever by some of the Upstate's finest actors.

Entering its fifth decade, the Warehouse Theatre is at the top of its game.

A warning: With its strong language and explicit sexual situations, "Angels" is for mature audiences only.

"Angels" makes considerable demands on a theater company, due to its length - two parts, each more than three hours - and its history of occasionally sparking controversy. Though it has been performed worldwide, "Angels" has been seen only one other time in South Carolina - in a Columbia staging also by Tromsness.

Set mainly in the mid-1980s during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, "Angels" maintains several story lines at once, touching on law, politics, religion, sexuality and philosophy.

At the play's center are two very different gay men suffering from AIDS: Prior Walter (Thomas Azar), a descendant of an old Puritan American family, and Roy Cohn (Paul Savas), who is based on the combative New York lawyer (and former chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy) of the same name.

Prior and Roy never meet in "Angels," but they are linked by a chain of relationships. Louis Ironson (Matt Reece), a leftist firebrand and Prior's lover, becomes involved with Joe Pitt (Matthew Merritt), a rising young Republican (and Mormon) lawyer who is Roy's protégé. Joe is married to Harper (Maegan McNerney Azar), a Valium-popping shut-in.

In Kushner's extravagantly theatrical play, the natural and supernatural easily coexist. Harper, for instance, shares dreams and hallucinations with Prior.

One can draw many ideas from the play, with its elaborate flights of poetry, rhetoric and philosophy. For this writer, what emerges most from "Millennium Approaches" is Kushner's overarching compassion for our shared vulnerability and humanity - and a plea not to allow anyone to fall through the cracks.

Is there a better message in this election year?

The Warehouse's eight-member cast is superb. The actors, each playing one or more roles, glowingly inhabit their characters, giving them nuance and a range of emotional dynamics.

Thomas Azar is a marvelously sympathetic Prior, suffering a loss of health and love. Matt Reece is excellent as well, deftly conveying Louis' guilt and anguish over abandoning Prior, his fragile partner.

The always-impressive Matthew Merritt portrays the Mormon lawyer Joe with searching subtlety. Maegan McNerney Azar brings an appealing vulnerability and winsomeness to the role of his wife, Harper.

Travis Lemont Ballenger plays the kindly drag queen and nurse Belize with flair and self-assurance.

Savas, the Warehouse's artistic director, offers a virtuosic performance as the ruthless Cohn, a man motivated only by self-preservation - and an emblem of the politics of hyper-individualism that Kushner despises. Savas' Cohn is a master manipulator, oily and persuasive at one moment, spitting and shaking the rafters with rage at another.

Anne Kelley Tromsness and Kerrie Seymour both take on several roles with polished professionalism.

Shannon Robert's scenic design is ingenious, resembling a cavern with arches. The production's other technical and creative elements - light, sound and costume designs, and incidental music - are first-rate.

For tickets to the Warehouse's spellbinding "Millennium Approaches," call 864-235-6948.

Paul Hyde is the Arts Writer for the Greenville (S.C.) News and Southeast Editor of Classical Voice North America. Follow Paul on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.

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