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Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches

a Drama
by Tony Kushner

COMPANY : Actor's Express [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Actor's Express [WEBSITE]
ID# 5204

SHOWING : January 12, 2018 - February 17, 2018



Sex, religion, and politics collide with history in Tony Kushner’s sweeping epic, one of the landmark theatrical events of the twentieth century. Set at the onset of the AIDS epidemic, these masterworks changed the theatrical landscape forever when they premiered on Broadway twenty-five years ago. And now, they finally land on the Actor’s Express stage in one of the most ambitious productions we’ve ever taken on.

Director Freddie Ashley
Roy Bryan Davis
Louis Louis Gregory
Harper Cara Mantella
Angel Parris Sarter
Joe J. Joe Sykes
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Date(d) with an Angel
by playgoer
Saturday, January 13, 2018
"Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches" is centered squarely on a time in America when gays were closeted, AIDS was a fatal scourge, and Reagan was president. It all seems dated now. Tony Kushner’s play is an important one, but one whose impact is lessening over time. Even its three-act structure seems terribly antiquated in these days when long one-acters are the fashion.

The production at Actor’s Express takes place on a wondrous set designed by James Ogden, with audience on three sides. The non-audience wall features two huge ovals that, with the curved arches jutting out from the adjoining audience sides, gives the impression of being inside the rib cage of a whale, an impression strengthened by the chalky white of the ovals and arches. Three sides of the auditorium feature an undulating horizon line with black above and below. The maritime blue of the lighting suggests both the sky and the sea. A line of blue lighting above and an equally broad line of gray paint on the floor emanate from the wall with the ovals, balancing one another beautifully with their off-center symmetry.

Staging on the set, however, is less wondrous. With audience on three sides, actors’ backs are going to be in evidence at some times, but placing a bed upstage and Harper’s chair in a downstage corner ensure that some moments will be entirely lost on sections of the audience. The use of a raised platform on the ovals’ wall, with set piece storage below, is practical in terms of letting the full audience view the scenes there, but in a show with supposedly magical and other-worldly moments, the practicality stomps the magical into submission.

Joseph P. Monaghan III’s lighting design does what it can to provide magical moments, and some are very effective, especially with sudden bursts of intensity or sudden blackouts. Others, in which colors on the sky scrim flash from one color to another in sequence, are more active than imaginative. The general lighting is intentionally blotchy, which can result in faces moving in and out of the light during movement-filled scenes.

Composer Ed Thrower has created nicely subtle musical transitions between scenes, but his sound designer has chosen to play them at a volume that destroys any hint of subtlety. Unfortunately, the sound designer is also Ed Thrower. He has chosen to add environmental background noises to several scenes that can make one wonder "is a truck backing up outside the theater?" or "is there a loud party going on somewhere in the King Plow Arts Center?" Since the staging of the scenes is so generic, background noises act as a distraction, doing nothing to help the audience enter and remain in the scene.

Kathryn Muse’s props fulfill the needs of the script without drawing attention to themselves.

Ivan Ingermann’s costumes shine most brightly in the specialty wardrobe moments that take place in dreams and hallucinations, but fail most spectacularly in the flagpole wings of the angel in the final moments of the play. The everyday costumes and hairstyles don’t "scream" 1980’s America, opting instead for a generic look. The actors generally take on multiple roles, and the oversized garb worn by Cara Mantella as a man and by Grant Chapman as a gay hustler make them look ridiculous.

In Actor’s Express’ small space, where there are four rows of audience members, the double-casting is all too obvious. It doesn’t add a "fun" element to the proceedings; instead, it’s an actor-y distraction from the story. The actors generally do well, but it’s a far cry from the TV production in which the rabbi’s performance resulted in an exclamation of "THAT was Meryl Streep??!?" "Angels in America" requires stellar performances, and they just aren’t in evidence here.

Grant Chapman does a terrific job as AIDS victim Prior, and Joe Sykes makes for a believably conflicted Joe, but most of the others give the type of performances we’ve come to expect of them. They’re all good actors, but they are not transcending their previous roles to give revelatory performances. Directors Freddie Ashley and Martin Damien Wilkins haven’t galvanized them into surpassing, or even equaling, their finest previous work. Only Mr. Chapman makes an indelible impression.

Enjoy the initial impression of walking into the theater in which "Angels in America" will take place. It’s a lovely space. But with sub-par fight choreography by Amelia Fischer and Connor Hammond, pedestrian staging by the directors, and workmanlike performances the norm, "Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches" comes across as an affecting story weighed down by literary monologues verging on the flowery and a ponderous pace that sparks to excitement at only two points: 1) in a cross-cut argument scene between the couples of Joe (Joe Sykes) and his wife Harper (Cara Mantella) and of Prior (Grant Chapman) and his boyfriend Louis (Louis Greggory), and 2) in Mr. Chapman’s spotlighted scene where he mouths words emanating from the sound system. Two moments of excitement in 3.5 hours of performance isn’t a great return on investment. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]


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