Review: ANGELS IN AMERICA, PART ONE: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES at Arena Stage

A seismic theatrical jolt.

By: Apr. 03, 2023
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Review: ANGELS IN AMERICA, PART ONE: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES at Arena Stage

A seismic theatrical jolt shot through the theatre world this past Thursday evening when a startling, radically deconstructed production of Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches opened at Arena Stage; this interpretation grabs you like a "fever-dream" of the mind. As soon as I walked in to see this interpretation of this classic play of the American canon, a distinctly European sensibility took hold, and I noticed the chandeliers were all covers in heavy tarp/sheeting and the Angel was raking the theatre-in -the -round stage while moving gradations of sand around an inner circle. This Angel appears with some frequency in this interpretation and we are reminded that there "are" angels in America ---perhaps we do not need be ruled by the crazed politics that divide us. We can choose to fight our biases and preconceptions.

This audaciously ingenious and zeitgeist-changing interpretation by famed international film and theater Director János Szász is like a punch in the psychic gut as we are simultaneously propelled into a sensory world of imagery and symbolism that evokes the subconscious psyche as the characters in the play (the word "characters" seems so antiquated in the context of this interpretation) evoke differing aspects of the mind. I felt as if I was in a dreamscape of the psyche throughout the play.

Director Szász has the ensemble often staying on stage in other spaces while one scene begins, and the preceding scene ends in an overlapping manner. The roles and actors seem to radiate a seemingly unconscious connection to one another even though the play is about the disconnection and fragmentation of relationships ---this is the genius of the approach here---nothing is done in the expected manner and a dualism of approach occurs. Even if you are an avid fan of this play, you will be continually surprised by the directorial choices-----one is walking "through the looking glass" and down the rabbit hole in each moment of this production.

This play had already pushed the envelope of the boundaries of technique and content when first produced and in several major productions ---(I have seen it in several differing productions over the years) ---in this production, the envelope has been torn open and the results are worth it. It is as if I had never seen the production before -Director Szász has seemingly deconstructed ever single line of text and aligned each line with an equally powerful subtext, visceral image, or stage movement; every single pause and word seems to have been radically rethought.

To reveal too much would spoil the play for potential audiences so just a few scenes that linger: A son confesses his homosexuality to his mother over an actual physical coiling phone line that is pulled tautly across the width of the stage, a casket becomes a couch for partners to talk, tables are thrown on their side and become perches for conversation, and Roy Cohn's moral turpitude is shown as he descends into an inferno-like hell of his own making.

In 1989, Susan Sontag wrote a book that influenced me greatly-AIDS and its Metaphors ----in her lucid and profound work, Sontag argues that the myths and metaphors and stigmatization surrounding the illness cause even more fatalities than the disease itself. In my "mind's eye" --in this dramatic interpretation, AIDS may BE the metaphor and I believe the director may have been saying that we infect one another with our biases and hatred of the "other". Certainly the callousness of the presential administration towards the LGBT community of the historical period (1985-1986) is well documented ---the plague of AIDS spiraled out of control with nary the blink of an eye from many influential quarters. This callousness of tone is well-incorporated in this production.

Stage design by Maruti Evans is transporting and totally envelops all sections of the theatre -in -the round -stage space. (As alluded to earlier, the imagery and symbolism evoked by the scenic and visual elements is evocative to the max). Via a highly practical and artistically thought-out choice, the use of a circular hole in the middle of the circular theatre- in -the- round, allows for several interesting and thought-provoking theatrical moments. This angel ascends from the earth ----unlike the angel who descends from the heavens in previous versions. A dream sequence of Antarctica is sharply realized, and grains of sand fell (like streams of water from the heavens) upon the stage, evoking a feeling of the transitory aspect of time.

The ensemble of actors is all exceptional and this is, perhaps, one of the most effectively unified ensembles I have witnessed in many years. All the actors are completely in thrall to the servicing of the text and the director's radically deconstructed and thematic approach. Director Szász seemed to stress both the specifics of his actors' character interpretation as well as, concurrently, dissecting archetypes.

Doubling and tripling of characters is well-managed here; the director has made the transitions fluid---with an exceptional awareness of not telegraphing these transitions. The characters sometimes seemed to be experiencing a continuous series of tiny terrors trying to run away from themselves and this must have influenced the constant movement onstage (and even in the aisles of the theater). Props and furniture were constantly moved around as well to enhance themes and atmosphere.

Each actor should be cited equally as befits this staging: John Austin, Michael Kevin Darnall, Edward Gero, Billie Krishawn, Susan Rome, Justin Weaks, Nick Westrate, and Deborah Ann Woll. (I would be remiss, however, if I did not mention the very absorbing, cleanly delineated and "non-fussy" interpretation of Mr. Westrate as Prior Walter -in a role that is sometimes overacted to a strident effect).

The original music and sound direction by Fabian Obispo kicks up and helps in jumpstarting several startling and effectively jarring scenes ---while fostering the required mood. Jazzy music, dissonant music and even House music are all employed at various times.

Lighting by Christopher Akerlind was evocative and costumes by Oana Botez were sartorially surprising and engaging to the eye.

A very refreshing aspect of the production was the unabashedly natural presentation of the sexual act both overt and more implicit as in the homoerotic subtext between the characters of Roy Cohn (a supremely sly performance of slow-burning fire by Edward Gero) and Joe Pitt (a marvelous John Austin). Full frontal male nudity shocked the audience and elicited gasps which I found to be ridiculous, especially considering the themes of the play.

Commendations to Arena Stage and Molly Smith, Artistic Director, and Edgar Dobie, Executive Producer for the courage and creative foresight to present this radical interpretation of a groundbreaking classic play.

This challenging and reinvigorating interpretation of Kushner's masterwork by acclaimed theater and film Director János Szász will be reckoned with, dissected, and analyzed until at least the next millennium.

Running Time: Three Hours and 30 minutes with one fifteen -minute intermission

Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches runs through April 23, 2023 in the Fichanlder Stage at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, Washington, DC 20024.

Photo Credit: Nick Westrate and Michael Kevin Darnall in Arena Stage's production of Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches. Photo by Tony Powell.




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