Angels in America: Millennium Approaches

Wed 23rd – Sat 26th January 2013

reviews

Costanza Bertoni

at 02:22 on 24th Jan 2013

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‘Angels in America’ is a production of divine poignancy. Haunted by the gloom of the 1980’s AIDS epidemic, it draws out the ruins of this American society from the mundane, into a kaleidoscope of phantasmagoria; hallucinations, convulsions, fabrications, deliberations, which all culminate in the apparition of the angel, and in the looks of reverence from the audience.

As a play with a strong element of timelessness, Jack Sain’s production encapsulates the audience within a visual space; with a set mainly consisting of backdrops roaring with newspaper articles, fashion posters and the occasional American flag, the mass culture of the 1980s does literally, and brilliantly, serve as the backdrop to the central issues of the play, indicated by the visual focus of the stage; the double bed, symbolic of death, partnership and union, all simply through this superb image. A demonstration of the visual impact, and power of the production.

An instance in which the visuals were particularly impressive was the scene between Harper Pitt and Prior Walter. Here, in this fusion of reality and their subconscious, both Harper and Prior are subjected to the standing behind the mirror which ‘reflects’ into the audience. This I considered an invitation to evaluate our own perspective of the visual aspects of the play, through the mirror: is what we are seeing actuality or fantasy? Can Harper’s addiction to Valium be justified by her unhappy marriage? Are Prior’s transvestite tendencies part of his orientation, or desire to escape from his terminal disease and cover up his life’s blemishes with make-up?

This complexity and ambiguity leads me to comment on what makes this depth to the play possible, which is indeed through the immense skill and talent of the cast: The credible and comic delirium delivered by Amelia Sparling, the controlled but layered portrayal of Joe Pitt by Dugie Young, the stark but sentimental attitudes of Mr. Lies, and simply the 'attitude' of Belize are perfectly conveyed by Selali Fiamanya, and Barney White’s “Mad Men” style interpretation of the tumultuous Roy Cohn. Of course, the aching chemistry between Louis Ironson and Prior Walter is created by the sincerity of Arty Froushan’s performance as a man in desperate search for answers and conclusions about his identity. This is contrasted to Ed Barr-Sim’s portrayal of Prior’s sense of hopelessness, but indeed acceptance of his terminal condition; a desperation so masterfully portrayed as Ed Barr-Sim gives Prior so many dimensions (anger, depression, resentment, and determination) that the ambiguous ending of the play regarding his survival or defeat of AIDS, is largely desired by the audience to be a symbol of hope.

‘Angels in America’ successfully joins the spirits of the past, with the angels of the future. It is a bold, and clamouring production that met the demanding needs of the script and discussed themes.

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Tim Bano

at 02:34 on 24th Jan 2013

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With flying actors, trapdoors, men playing women, women playing men, political diatribe, and a blunt confrontation with not only the AIDS pandemic in the gay community but homosexuality more generally, this play was not a romp in Central Park. It was a theatrical experience, something that we, as an audience, had to buy into – particularly the harsh transitions between ‘reality’ within the play and its supernatural elements. But this was helped by an excellent set design, a powerful score and some brilliant acting.

Best among the cast was Arty Froushan as Louis Ironson. Accentuated by his costume, he had a completely believable Clark Kentish, preppy demeanour – innocent and earnest. He talks a great deal in all his scenes, but this is characterised by Froushan as part of a nervous disposition and a searching soul. His vulnerability is endearing. On top of this, he pulled off a flawless accent – consistent, not over-egged and never slipping back into English for a moment. As the closeted, Republican, Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt, Dugie Young had good moments, but sometimes he came across a little too wooden and occasionally he spoke too quickly. But in the scene with his mother (Natasha Heliotis) as an offstage light caught a tear in his eye it was completely moving. Heliotis herself, in her multiple parts, displayed impressive versatility. She had the best comic lines, well-delivered without undermining the weightiness of the rest of the play. And she was balanced by the equally versatile Georgina Hellier portraying parts from the earthy Bronx nurse to the ethereal floating angel.

Amelia Sparling as Pitt’s pill-popping wife Harper had an interesting take on someone living between reality and a dreamworld. She was cheerful, calm and completely unhinged. What seemed to be the trickiest part to portray was Prior Walter (Ed Barr-Sim), incapacitated by AIDS. There was a bit too much variation in his accent and changing degrees of campness in Barr-Sim’s voice, but in the more heightened moments he was good. Barney White as (real life) lawyer Roy Cohn did overbearing and threatening well, and was actually quite frightening when he shouted. But he was at his best when the power and anger were latent, not overt – with an arm on Pitt’s shoulder at a bar, rather than writhing on the floor. White played with the script in the most interesting way, bringing out nuances and accentuations that kept his (lengthy) speeches engaging.

One of the production’s great strengths was its sparse set. It consisted of newspaper-spattered shards of scenery poking up through the floor, cold and colourless, imbuing the stage with a monochrome chill. The bleak look, tinged with patches of different coloured light, pushed our focus onto the acting. Only a few items of furniture stood against this stylised backdrop creating a half-realised world – like the halfworlds of Prior’s dreams, and Harper’s hallucinations.

It was good to have so much music accompanying the play (composed by Nathan Klein, conducted by Ed Whitehead) – it worked so well and enhanced the atmosphere, with its synthy, sustained notes that sounded like running a finger around a crystal glass, while a piano provided more in the way of melody and movement. It was always the right side of being tonal, and it was so tense, grand and foreboding, building to an immersive climax.

Although the long scenes, full of dense and philosophising dialogue, sometimes dragged a fair bit, the production generally lived up to the challenge of the play: a full exploitation of theatre, of not only the space of the stage but the breadth of the actors’ abilities, the fine line between reality and unreality, the limits of acceptance – the audience’s acceptance of the stories and lives and dreams on stage, society’s acceptance of homosexuality, the acceptance by one human of another’s life, choices, merits and mistakes. It was a good production, not easy-going and nor should it have been. And with 10% of profits going to the National AIDS Trust, it really is worth buying a ticket.

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