Review: Angels in America
It’s impossible to write about Silo Theatre’s Angels in America without feeling its weight. It’s one of the greatest plays to have been written in the last century, it’s here (both Part One and Part Two!) and it’s marking the end of an era. After 13 years as artistic director, Angels is Shane Bosher’s swan song, and everything about the production – its ambition, its successes, its whole goddamn personality – is a testament to what he’s achieved in this role.
But first, let’s do away with the nagging thought on everyone’s mind: It’s seven hours long. Seven hours long?! Wrong. It’s more like eight, but it's all worth it (I didn’t sit through the double feature though, so cannot advise on whether the marathon will be a problem for restless butts).
You feel the weight of the play, but there’s also a remarkable weightlessness and space to the production. It’s a vast, sprawling tapestry of Reagan’s America, weaving in issues around religion, identity, and the AIDS epidemic. It’s an exploration of how fear, justice and the need for community plays out against this barren landscape of extreme self-interest, all thrown into relief against Rachael Walker’s smooth and stark mausoleum of a set and Leon Radojkovic’s charging, surrealistic composition.
At the nucleus of Part One: Millennium Approaches are two men who have been diagnosed with AIDS: Prior Walter (Gareth Reeves) and Roy M. Cohn (Stephen Lovatt). One’s a warm and caring man and the other is Roy Cohn, based very much on the man himself: the snarling, unrepentant McCarthyist attorney who preserves his sense of power by refusing his sexuality (“Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men,” he tells his doctor upon receiving his diagnosis, “Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows.”)
Lying halfway between the two (on a scale of proudly-out to I-don’t-have-AIDS-I-have-liver-cancer) is Joe Pitt (Matt Minto), a Mormon attorney, Cohn’s protégé and husband to Harper Pitt (Chelsie Preston-Crayford), who spends most of her time unhappy, alone, and hallucinating on Valium. While at work one day, Joe stumbles upon Louis Ironson (Dan Musgrove), Prior’s partner - a chatty word processor with broadly liberal world views - crying in the bathroom. From there, the lives of these characters continue to converge in unexpected ways.
What makes Angels a testament to Bosher’s achievements is this: it’s a well-chosen script (the dialogue is sharp, smart, witty and revelatory and the play is impressively ambitious in its intentions, taking on an entire decade of American history) and the performances are magnificent. It’s some of the finest talent you’ll see onstage, and there’s an energy here that hums, moments when it feels truly symphonic. Stephen Lovatt’s the bass: he brings a terrifying ferocity and fear to Cohn that threatens to make you feel empathy for the man. They’re all paradoxes, though: Reeves’ Prior is deeply vulnerable yet strong; Jarod Rawiri’s sassy Belize is open yet opaque; Chelsie Preston-Crayford’s Harper is profoundly damaged, yet maintains a hopeful innocence; Dan Musgrove’s Louis is eager yet reserved, at once needing others and refusing them; Mia Blake’s Angel is ethereal and earthy and Alison Bruce’s characters channel a calming energy that tie it all together.
See both parts, if you can. It’d be a mistake not to. They’re very different shows but they hang off each other, more than the sum of their parts. Part One: Millennium Approaches sets everything up: It feels like the important half, in the Tolstoyan sense of the word (which is also to say that the pacing here drags a little more than in Part Two). It purposefully lacks emotional intensity or narrative urgency, because the groundwork it’s laying down is less about the emotional landscape of the characters and more the socio-political forces that’s led to them act the way that they have.
Part Two: Perestroika is where it really has fun with itself. Whereas Part One is more serious political drama, Part Two continues the tragic narrative trajectories within the framework of a dark, absurd screwball comedy. The weight of the first part adds to the humour here, where everything that's set up is dismantled and subverted and rebuilt. It's a period of fantastical awakening and recognition following destruction, hurt and betrayal, and there's a sense of delightful, hysterical recklessness driving the piece.
There’s an occasional moment where it feels (duh) too American – rare moments where it threatens to be heavy-handed or didactic (you wish they could've done away with the PSA-style end), but overall, it's nothing short of spectacular: Silo's Angels in America is a world-class play, with world-class performances to match.
Angels in America plays at the Q Theatre from 21 March - 13 April
Book your tickets here
Johnny Givins (Part One and Part Two) for Theatreview
James Wenley for Theatre Scenes (Part One)
Paul Simei-Barton (Part One) and Janet McAllister (Part Two) for the NZ Herald
Frances Edmond (Part One and Part Two) for Metro