SARATOGA SPRINGS — Not unusually, advertising for “Angels in America” features a picture of an angel. One of the most striking moments in this Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tony Kushner occurs at the end when an angel (Mary Darcy) appears to Prior Walter (Kody Carpenter). In large-scale productions it is a breathtaking moment, and while such a spectacle isn’t possible at The Arts Center, the appearance is nonetheless affecting.
Indeed, most of this production is absorbing, thanks to director JJ Buechner’s vision, which he described for Lauren Halligan of the Troy Record/Saratogian:
“We have taken a show, stripped it down to one set (by Chet Romanowski) with four chairs and platform. We are letting these amazing actors use this wonderful script to speak for itself…The author himself notes in the script that this show is actor-driven, so that’s what we’ve done.”
This treatment works. Surrounding the stage on three sides, the audience is up close to the action, and what action it is. Kushner subtitles his two-play piece “A Gay Fantasia on American Themes,” and in language that is, by turns, poetic and raw and mystical and amusing, this story of Reagan-era America, in the early throes of the AIDS crisis, is a brain-bending theatrical event. Playing numerous roles (thanks to costumes by Edna Capri and wigs by Buechner & Elsen Associates), the company moves fluidly through scenes of nightmare and dream.
The play begins at a funeral, led by an elderly rabbi ( Melissa Putterman Hoffmann), and ends with a death.
In between the action focuses on two couples: lovers Prior and Louis (Evan Jones, never better), and a Mormon couple, Joe (Alex Perone, deeply moving) and Harper (Cori Irwin, in a nuanced performance). Prior and Louis struggle with Prior’s diagnosis of AIDS; Joe and Harper struggle with Joe’s burgeoning homosexuality and Harper’s addiction to painkillers. Near the end of Act II there’s a riveting scene, like an operatic quartet, when each expresses his/her pain, and it’s delivered with remarkable intensity by these four performers.
But wait! Thanks to Kushner’s rich imagination, here come two of Prior’s ancestors, played by Cindy Boyka and Nick Himmelwright; and Roy Cohn (Buechner), the infamous McCarthy-era lawyer who convicted the Rosenbergs. And Ethel Rosenberg herself (the versatile Hoffmann).
And in one of the evening’s most thought-provoking scenes, Louis and his former lover, Belize (Daryl Hirschfield), who is African American, have a fierce conversation touching on many of those American themes: racism, money, privilege, religion, and democracy.
Kushner can do funny, too. You’ll be chuckling, mordantly, at some of the dialogue that could be referring to today’s upside-down politics.
The entire company (aided by Steve Moulton’s effective lighting design and Amanda Lupe’s efficient stage management) works beautifully together. In addition to the scenes I’ve mentioned, I also like a chilling one between Cohn and his doctor (Hoffmann) and a real estate agent (Darcy) and Joe’s mother (Hoffmann).
This is a long play, with two intermissions, but you never lose the desire to return after the breaks. A strong undertaking of a powerful script.
‘Angels in America, Part One: Millenium Approaches’
WHERE: The Local Actors Guild of Saratoga, 320 Broadway, Saratoga Springs
WHEN: Through May 21
HOW MUCH: $20
MORE INFO: 393.3496