Angels in America Part I — Epic Theater at Epic Theatre

An Exploration of Gay Lifestyle

Staging Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, especially in an intimate space like Epic Theatre’s 82 Rolphe Square, is a daunting task that takes artistic courage and strong acting. This production has both.

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, is a 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning play in two parts. The play was made into an opera by Hungarian composer Péter Eötvös in 2002 and an HBO miniseries in 2003. Set in 1985 in New York City, the play explores the intersecting lives of a gay couple facing AIDS, a young Mormon couple facing addiction and closeted homosexuality, and Roy Cohn, the real-life closeted gay attorney made famous during the McCarthy investigations during the Red Scare. The lines of fantasy and reality blur throughout the play. Boycotted in Charlotte, NC, in 1996 due to its controversial exploration of gay themes and lifestyle, Kushner’s in-your-face writing keeps the audience on its toes, never knowing what they’ll be witnessing next.

Directed by Ashley Arnold and Kevin Broccoli, the intimate space and overlapping scenes make the three-hour show easy to take. Strong acting dominates the play, first by Broccoli, as Louis, most notably in a speech about democracy and race. Michael Puppi’s Prior Walter perfectly blends strength and fear as a young gay man facing death. His scenes are touching and terrifying as his character fights to make sense of what’s happening to him.

R. Bobby, as Roy Cohn, deftly plays a despicable human being struggling with his own demons. His character brings dark humor to the story. In his opening scene, with wit and speed, he simultaneously talks on the phone to five different associates. Melanie Stone’s spacy portrayal as Harper Pitt, the valium-loving Mormon wife prone to hallucinations, is precise. Her husband, played by C.T. Larsen, easily balances fear and determination in his character. The four actors playing multiple roles each have “steal-the-show” moments, like Mary Paolino playing the Rabbi and the Angel, Theodore Clement as the ghost of Prior Walter and as Roy Cohn’s doctor, Victor Terry’s drag-queen Belize, and Joan Batting’s Hannah Pitt, yelling at homeless people in the Bronx. The dramatic closing scene, filled with all nine actors, leaves the audience eager to come back for Part II.

The set works well for the staging, except for a few mixed-era pieces that seem out of place. The attempt to heighten the element of fantasy in the play via lighting was distracting, either being too small for a scene or by actors who couldn’t find their light. Other technical elements, however, like sound, enhance the dreamlike quality of the play.

Lighting issues aside, this is a show not to be missed if just for the ’80s history alone, especially for the millennial theatergoer. And for those of us who were there when, it’s always good to be reminded of our nation’s history, particularly for gay rights. As New Englanders, it’s easy to think we have come so far, with marriage equality and all, but the fear of being out is an ever present risk for so many gay and transgender people in our country and our world. Angels in America provides a reminder. Epic Theatre Company’s mission is “to bring provocative contemporary work to Rhode Island as well as new perspectives on classical theater … striving to continue the tradition of event theater, where each production has built-in excitement both for the audiences and the artists involved.”

How fitting that a play, classified as “epic theater,” is being just that, at our own Epic Theatre.

Part I: Millennium Approaches and Part II: Perestroika are being produced, alternately, through June 29th, with back-to-back performances (with a break for dinner) for those interested in seeing the play in its entirety on June 22nd and 29th. For ticket and performance information, visit artists-exchange.org/theatre82.html

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