November 01, 1994

Wings of Desire

Filed under: Archive,Interstate,Theatre


Angels in America
Part I: Millennium Approaches
by Tony Kushner

State Theatre in Association with
the Melbourne Theatre Company
Playhouse, October, 1994.

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

There are no spirits, no ghosts, no angels in America. So says one of the characters in Tony Kushner’s extraordinary play about sexual identity, politics, puritanism, AIDS and the millenium. In what he calls A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Kushner ambitiously intersects the wheels of American history and religion with the twin crises of AIDS and environmental degradation.

Prior Walter is descended from an American family which dates back to the Pilgrim Fathers and the Mayflower- and before that to the Bayeux Tapestry. Louis Ironson is from a New York Jewish family. Joe Pitt and his wife Harper are Mormons from Salt Lake City. Joe is now working for a judge in New York. Harper is not. Belize is a black ex-ex-drag queen and AIDS nurse. Roy Cohn is Roy Cohn, the New York attorney, friend and spiritual guide to Senator Joe McCarthy, nemesis of the Rosenbergs, corrupter of the Bench, Reagan crony, and worse.

In both a matter-of-fact and fantastical way these lives interweave. The play opens with a funeral. An ancient rabbi Woody Allen would be pleased to own, bemoans old age in America- this melting pot where nothing has melted. An old woman has died. The last of the Mohicans, the rabbi drily observes. She is Louis’s grandmother. After the burial service his lover, Prior shows Louis the lesion on his arm, first sign of full-blown AIDS. Louis panics at the prospect and abandons Prior. In the men’s room of the Justice building he meets Joe, the Mormon lawyer who is ghosting judgements for a conservative Supreme Court judge. Joe’s mentor, Roy Cohn is angling to have him transfered to Washington where he will be able to exert influence for Cohn and others. Joe’s wife Harper, agoraphobic and zonked on valium spends her time alone in their apartment. She has anxieties about the depletion of the ozone layer and yearns to travel to the polar icecaps. Her suffering makes her a sensitive, she moves about in psychic space. Prior appears in one of her hallucinations. She tells him she can see a part of him that is completely without disease.

Director Neil Armfield has steered this fascinating, unwieldy three hour marathon with more than his usual flair. There’s scads of narrative to deal with as well as dream sequences, falling angels, ghosts, imaginary friends and eskimoes. The play lurches from black comedy to melodrama to extended polemic- all of which is managed by the exceptionally able cast.

Brian Thomson’s Book of Revelation backdrop powerfully sets the piece as do the hefty mausoleums at each side of the stage- one a seat for confession, the other a urinal for dismal assignations. A desk, a bed, a hospital cot and a sofa provide the decor for the fast-paced succession of scenes, punctuated by Paul Healy’s portentous sound design. Armfield has used these techniques before- in Stephen Sewell’s Dreams in an Empty City. In Angels he has even bolder devices to explore and reconcile.

The performances are uniformly good. David Tredinnick is splendid as Prior, working the gamut from A to AZT. It is a strongly realised characterisation, witty, vulnerable, dignified. The scenes with Colin Batrouney as Louis have a painful truth about them, those with Belize (Melvin J. Carroll) steer just this side of schmaltz. Greg Stone is rock-steady as Joe, the geewhiz Mormon who, in order to be good has to become nothing at all. The geniality of the character makes his conservatism all the more sinister. Catherine McClements takes Harper convincingly through a series of parallel worlds, showing her paranoia as prescient, her depression as thwarted energy.

Jacek Koman is outstanding as Roy Cohn. This portrait is one of the most powerful in the play as Kushner extrudes the biographical figure into one of demonic, mythic dimensions. He is Richard of York, a bottled spider enmeshing the ingenuous Joe in a web of intrigue. He dissembles, he cajoles- the scene where he tries to persuade Joe to to take the job in Washington compares to Richard wooing Lady Anne. Koman’s Cohn is a vicious, dynamic figure. In the scene when his doctor tells him he has AIDS and he replies that he has too much clout to be a homosexual, he embodies the same sexual psychosis as that other malign defender of justice, J.Edgar Hoover.

There is much to admire about both the production and the play. Neil Armfield has given energy and fluency to Kushner’s text which places AIDS in the wider context of American puritanism, especially the failure by the Reagan administration to respond to the crisis. Kushner brings together rich material- deft individual portraits, the peculiarly American doctrines of Mormonism (founded by Joseph Smith, the only American ever visited by an angel) and the energy of political discourse.

But despite all this I am left unclear who the angels in America are, or should be. The Jacob who wrestles with the angel, the harsh god of American fundamentalism, the talk of millenium – all this suggests a paradigm of guilt, punishment and retribution. If Kushner is inhabiting this orthodoxy in order to subvert it, it is too confusing to succeed. If he is declaring that Prior in his suffering is a Latter Day Saint, then he lets the play slip into sentimental hyperbole. The courage of those facing the ordeal of AIDS is no more or less than that of many others in extremis. We don’t need a new pantheon of martyrs, another cosmography for the head of a pin.

The angel who descends in Christmas white at the end of the play (designer Thomson’s one false note) beckons Prior to begin his task. But the spiritual implication masks the more resilient meaning in Kushner’s text – the notion that we must live fully in the moment. In Angels in America Kushner shows us the weirdness of transcendentalism only apparently to succumb to it. The revelation in the play is a human one. It is as though, finally he doesn’t trust it.

Part 2 Perestroika

For the final matinee of the season, as a fund-raiser for the AIDS Council and the Adele Koh Acting Scholarship, the cast of Angels in America performed Part 2 Perestroika. In an engaging introduction Neil Armfield explained that the planned moved reading had become a full performance with a few modifications in the flying department. Unfamiliar with the text I was keen to pick up the saga where it left off. Kushner, after all, tells a good story with all the lacunae of the Young and the Restless.

If you wonder what happens in Part 2 the answer is -more. But having said that Part 1 is also surprisingly, gratifyingly complete. In Perestroika there are some extraordinary flights of invention – the Mormon family diorama for instance, and the Kaddish for Roy Cohn read by Louis, Belize and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. The relationship between Joe and Louis is developed and Joe’s marriage with Harper disintegrates. The role of Belize is expanded and the character is given greater clarity. Mother Pitt (Monica Maughan) who sells her house in Salt Lake in Part 1 becomes one of several guiding lights to Prior. Cohn’s decline is gruesomely adumbrated. The scene where he tears the drip out of his arm and gushes blood over Joe is as harrowing as anything in Part 1 except the terrible moment when Prior suffers a bowel haemorrhage.

Kushner’s themes have such momentum that Part 2 is as engaging as the first. But there is evidence of a squandering of opportunity. The long scene of Judgement Day is unfocused, the reconciliation between Prior and Louis verges on soap. The final scene, an address to the audience about the resolve of the gay community and the continuing struggle against AIDS is both compelling and strangely diminished- as if the playwright didn’t believe that after seven hours we’d got the point.

However, seeing the actors- Monica Maughan, Colin Batrouney, Melvin Carroll, Jacek Koman, William McClusky, Margaret Mills, Catherine McClements, Greg Stone and David Tredinnick – sitting along the front of the stage, reminds us that is the essence of theatre. And, in this case, at its most accomplished and rewarding.

“Wings of desire” The Adelaide Review, No.133, November, 1994, pp.35-6.

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