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Angels in America

[The following review appeared in the Denver Post on October 14th.]

Angels in America is one of those rare plays that consciously taps into the power of primitive rituals from which theatre is derived and succeeds in providing a comparable platform for healing, as is evident in Vintage Theatre's intimate and innovative production.

Crystal Verdon as the Angel
Crystal Verdon as the Angel
Photo: Ellen Nelson
The company's commitment in staging Tony Kushner's two plays—which were awarded a Pultizer Prize and back-to-back Tony Awards in the early '90's—blossoms in a myriad of details of performance and staging.

"Part One: Millennium Approaches" opens with an elderly rabbi (Michelle A. Grimes) presiding over the funeral of Sarah Ironson, an Eastern European immigrant, who "carried the old world on her back across the ocean" to "the melting pot where nothing melted."

Here, her ancestors, in this case grandson Louis (Andrew Uhlenhopp), were thrown together with others whose forbearers made similar journeys, among them: Prior Walter (Craig Bond) from old English stock; Joe Pitt (James O'Hagan-Murphy), a Morman; Belize (Tyrrell Rae), an African-American, and Roy Cohen (Kurt Brighton), with roots similar to Louis.

(Left to right) Craig Bond as Prior and Andrew Uhlenhopp as Louis
(L to R) Craig Bond as Prior
and Andrew Uhlenhopp as Louis
Photo: Ellen Nelson
All these characters also happen to be gay men experiencing the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic during the mid-1980's. It is this epic struggle, and its manifestations in these characters, through which Kushner builds his "gay fantasia on national themes"—religious, racial, psychological, political, and sexual.

Kushner succeeds on so many levels that the noted critic Harold Bloom included Angels as one of 26 of the most important works of literature in The Western Canon (1994). It remains the foremost North American example of magical realism.

Craig Bond as Prior
Craig Bond as Prior
Photo: Ellen Nelson
Prior Walter's struggle with AIDS and his tumultuous relationship with his lover, Louis, is the cathartic center of the drama. Bond's clarity in both the comedic and tragic moments carries us through Prior's transformation to a place filled with light and hope.

To experience the full potential of Prior's miraculous journey we must see him through the darkest times, when there was no treatment for AIDS and Louis leaves him. This would make it easy for us to see Louis as one of the bad guys if it were not for the sympathy that Uhlenhopp's portrayal draws, as a fun-loving and thoughtful, if overly cerebral, partner.

During Louis' self-imposed exile from Prior, he crosses paths with Joe, a sexually confused young lawyer and clerk for a federal appellate justice. The internal tension generated by O'Hagan-Murphy as Joe—caught between his ingrained beliefs and his innermost desires—is palpable, yet holds to a natural arc throughout.

The frankest and most colorful voice is that of Belize, a registered nurse, former drag queen, and former lover of Prior. Rae has charm galore as he lights up Belize and his alter ego, Mr. Lies, with the kind of cool usually only perfected by jazz singers and rap stars.

One of Belize's patients happens to be Roy Cohn, the infamous, eventually disbarred attorney who worked with J. Edgar Hoover and Sen. Joseph McCarthy, prosecuted the Rosenbergs, and performed dirty tricks for Nixon, Reagan, and assorted Mafioso. Brighton's performance summons an impressive arsenal of persuasiveness, vitriol, and irony that brings alive the shimmering arrogance for which Cohn was known.

Haley Johnson as Harper
Haley Johnson as Harper
Photo: Ellen Nelson
Joe's wife, Harper, suffers anxiety attacks that are in part due to her displacement from Utah and in part from a lack of emotional connection with her gay husband. Add a Valium habit to these agoraphobic elements and you have a recipe for some hyperbolic visions. Johnson creates a compelling contrast between Harper's depression over her rudderless marriage and her elation when her imagination escapes the gravity of her Brooklyn surroundings.

Joe's mother, Hannah, shows up in an attempt to help the couple return to the fold. Grimes' deadpan, no-nonsense portrait surprises us with a delightful payoff when, without batting an eye, she ends up befriending our unlikely group of castaways.

Crystal Verdon as the Angel and Craig Bond as Prior
Crystal Verdon as the Angel
and Craig Bond as Prior
Photo: Ellen Nelson
The intensity of Crystal Verdon as the Angel is something to behold when she finally arrives to importune Prior to begin The Great Work. It is no small feat to channel such a convincing creature and quite startling to experience her at such close range.

Here and there, the show could benefit from some tweaks, including more of the type of magic Kushner specifies regarding the sacred book and the Angel's entrance, as well as better projection of the sermons from the Rabbi and the World's Oldest Bolshevik that kick off each play.

Yet, overall it is an astonishing production in what is likely the most intimate space you'll ever see this masterwork performed. Kushner's examination of gay rights remains as timely as the day it was written.

Vintage Theatre's production of Angels in America, Part One (Millennium Approaches) and Part Two (Perestroka) runs through November 7th. 303-839-1361 or www.vintagetheatre.com.

Bob Bows

 

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