Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Brilliant 'Angels in America' opens at Berkeley Rep

The angel (Francesca Faridany) visits Prior Walter . (Photo by Kevin Berne)

Berkeley Repertory Theatre is staging Tony Kushner’s epic masterpiece, “Angels in America.”

Subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” this Tony-winning drama has two parts: “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika.” They’re presented separately, but it’s possible to see both in a marathon. That’s how it opened April 28.

It takes place in New York at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. One of the central characters, Prior Walter (Randy Harrison), discovers the telltale lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma, one of the first manifestations of the disease.

His live-in partner, Louis Ironson (Benjamin T. Ismail), can’t handle the situation and moves out, leaving Prior feeling abandoned.

Another central character is Joseph Porter Pitt (Danny Binstock), or Joe, a devout Mormon who’s married to another Mormon, the unhappy Harper Pitt (Bethany Jillard), who’s hooked on Valium.

Joe has been trying to repress his homosexual feelings for all of his life because they conflict with his religion. However, when he meets Louis, he finally admits that he’s gay.

Another central character is the real-life Roy Cohn (Stephen Spinella). He was an 
attorney notorious for his role in the McCarthy hearings and the trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were convicted and executed for espionage.

He’s a foul-mouthed bully who threatens people to get what he wants. He’s also a closet gay who contracts AIDS but refuses to acknowledge it. He says he has liver cancer.

Finally there are Belize (Caldwell Tidicue), the effeminate gay nurse who tends to Prior and Roy in the hospital, and Hannah Pitt (Carmen Roman), Joe’s mother. She sells her house in Salt Lake City and moves to New York after Joe tells her he’s gay.

The fantasia aspect of the subtitle comes from the visions that Harper, Prior and Roy have. She imagines a travel agent, Mr. Lies (Caldwell Tidicue), who pops out of her sofa and then greets her in Antarctica.

Prior imagines a long line of ancestors also named Prior Walter and an angel (Francesca Faridany), who descends from his ceiling and gives him a book of prophecies. He eventually returns the book and rejects its anti-migratory teachings of staying put. He wants to keep moving.

Roy imagines that Ethel Rosenberg (Roman again) quietly visits his hospital room.

Guilt plays a large role in the play. Louis feels guilty for leaving Prior. Joe feels guilty for being gay and leaving Harper. Roy may or may not feel guilty for Ethel Rosenberg’s execution.

Kushner relates all of these developments in beautifully poetic language interspersed with hilarious lines. And he doesn’t shy away from the ravages of AIDS, which at the time was a sure death sentence.

When the play originated in 1991 at the Eureka Theatre Company, in San Francisco, healthy young men became gaunt skeletons and soon died, especially in San Francisco, where the toll reached hundreds, even thousands.

The first hope was AZT. In the play, it’s still in clinical trials, but Roy uses his clout to get a large stash, but not enough to spare his life.

Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone, who directs this current production, was Eureka’s co-artistic director and commissioned the play. It went on to ACT in San Francisco and elsewhere throughout the nation.

Despite being set in the 1980s, it has implications for today. In his program notes, Taccone stresses the nation’s need for balance between “giving voice to every opinion while maintaining civility and respect for the law.”

He continues, “Led by our president, who seems hell-bent on destroying that balance, expressions of generosity toward our political opponents seem to have all but evaporated.”

Elsewhere in the program, Madeleine Oldman writes, “Today’s press frequently notes that Donald Trump learned most of his bullying, hardball tactics from Cohn, who was his lawyer.”

Politics aside, Kushner weaves a compelling story of people dealing with extreme trials. This production humanizes those people with eight actors, most of whom play several roles.

Except for Faridany, who came late into the production and who has not yet fully realized the angel’s character, it’s a brilliant cast.

The first part, “Millennium Approaches,” has an awe-inspiring ending as Prior’s bedroom wall splits and the angel flies in.

“Perestroika” starts slowly in the first act, but coalesces in the next two, leading to an exceptional theatrical experience.

Although the two parts are supposedly separate, it’s advisable to see “Millennium Approaches” first because “Perestroika” picks up where it leaves off. That’s a big difference from the original Eureka production, when “Perestroika” seemed so unrelated. Kushner has revised it considerably since then.

Contributing to the success of this production are the design elements with sets by Takeshi Kata, costumes by Montana Blanco, lighting by Jennifer Schriever, sound by Jake Rodriguez and Bray Poor, projections by Alexander V. Nichols, music by Andre Pluess and Flying by Foy.

“Millennium Approaches” runs about three and a half hours.“Perestroika” is nearly four hours. Both have two intermissions. For those who opt to see them in one day, there’s a two-and-a-half-hour break for dinner in one of the many nearby restaurants.

“Angels in America” will continue through July 22 in Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St. For tickets and information, including special events, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.