The CMU School of Drama has taken on Tony Kushner’s renowned Pulitzer Prize winning Angels in America: Millennium Approaches. This production surges with vitality due to totally convincing performances by the student cast. Certainly everyone was inspired by director Jed Allen Harris’ impressive work on the interpretations. Yet some of Harris’ other conceptions look more puzzling than illuminating.
Kushner’s creation still dazzles with well-developed characters and imaginative flights of fantasy and the surreal. Experiencing it again, though, I continue to find more smoke and mirrors than a work of art saying coalescing into something substantial. Looking behind the surface certainly reveals interesting and illuminating information about what Kushner was trying to do. But you shouldn’t have to explore intentions to appreciate a work of art. What you see and hear should be enough.
Nonetheless, I did post-performance reading on background to try to understand what Kushner had in mind. Evidently he wanted to create Brecht-like theatre, i.e keep the audience distant from rather than immersed in his fable, to be deliberately didactic. Consequently, despite compelling people fleshing out his space, you could want something more significant, rather than just admiring the bones. And, at this play’s conclusion, Kushner implies that there could be a genuine point to the whole thing, but later after this ends with an angel descending to announce that there is more to come. But, so far, you too, can be left hanging.
What has such background to do with this production? It looks as if Director Harris is trying to avoid realism and emphasize the obvious mechanics of stage craft by having scenes played in tiny spaces on a vast, open and barren stage. Certainly that suggests the characters’ isolation outside mainstream society but it also makes it difficult to connect with them. Harris also has a giant wall across the back rumble and, from time to time, heavily surge forward or shift back. His use of such a device to underscore Kushner’s deliberate moving into and out of the presumably real world seems justified for whatever symbolic interpretation you’d care to conjure. But we remain in intellectual territory, our brains given dominance over our hearts.
Earnest Mormon, deeply closeted Joe Pitt and his wife Harper have an increasingly dysfunctional relationship emphasized by her dependence on escaping into Valium-induced illusions. Joe has become a protégé of powerful, nasty ex -Joe McCarthy attack dog and successful lawyer Roy Cohn. In a parallel part of New York, intellectual omnivore Louis Ironson’s lover Prior Walter has contracted AIDS and seems to be dying. Louis and Joe eventually fall in love. Meanwhile Cohn fights to the death his possible exposure as a homosexual.
The performers play these roles with convincing sincerity, giving each depth and dimension. Interpreting Prior, Trevor McQueen-Eaton gives a touching, beautiful performance. And Emily Koch’s portrayal of Harper captures all of her vulnerable confusion. As Joe and Lewis I found Adam Hagenbuch and Jesse Carrey-Beaver always truthful. But I had trouble understanding Brian Morabito’s Roy Cohn, who seemed most often to snarl and bite off his words instead of making clear his points.
There are three other minor characters listed in the program book, There are also nine more, none of them identified, each played by an uncredited person in the eight-member cast. Background reading shows that such doubling is a Kushner choice. That may be Brecht-like too, but if Kushner wants to emphasize theatricality over reality, wouldn’t he want us to be aware that these are actors practicing their versatility? I suppose director Harris has to honor what the author wants.
Harris has made an off-putting choice by combining and overlapping two scenes. In one, Joe and Harper harshly confront each other as their marriage disintegrates. In another, the bond between Lewis and Prior splits apart. Harris obliterates the essence of such urgent and dramatic developments, all four talking at the same time making clear virtually nothing except that sorrow and anger attend both couples equally, as if sacrificing Kushner’s words for some symbolic trick.
Much has been made about the idea that this is a play about AIDS. That seems debatable. Yes, bewildered Prior and Roy Cohn have it. They suffer agonies while losing their way in disturbing fantasies. But that says nothing obvious about the disease itself. I continue to see this play more about being ostracized and imperiled gay men in Ronald Reagan’s America, in a society whose emotional and physical pain pains everyone. There Kushner grabs us, even though he wants to push us away.
Why should we be distant observers, huddling in the darkness instead of reaching out to hold hands with our brothers?
Carnegie Mellon University presents Angels In America: Millennium Approaches by Tony Kushner at Philip Chosky Theater, Purnell Center for the Arts, on the CMU campus, Oakland. 412/268-2407. www.drama.cmu.edu