Angels in America, Part II – Perestroika

The quintessential story of AIDS in America during the 1980s.

angelsPerestroika is the subtitle of the second installment of the epic theatrical saga, Angels in America by Tony Kushner. This ingenious Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece is presented by Epic Theatre Company at Theater 82 in Cranston on Rolfe Street.  Kevin Broccoli and his company are making the gutsy move to present both Part One – The Millennium Approaches and Part Two – Perestroika, together on selected dates.  This is the quintessential story of AIDS in America during the 1980s.

Perestroika is the name of the political movement initiated in Russia during the 1980s. It literally means a restructuring/change – in Russia regarding the Communist Party, due to shifting global power. This is the change foreshadowed in Angels in America, Part I – The Millennium Approaches.  Part I was presented earlier this month. It is fascinating how Kushner interwove politics and religion into his story about the impact of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. Kushner apparently felt that the plague of AIDS – complicated, feared, not easily understood – was a reflection of the complex, feared, not easily understood global changes in politics, religion and morals at the time.

Michael Puppi turns in a stellar performance as Prior Walter, the dominant character leading us through Perestroika. Prior, terribly ill, fights his AIDS. Yet somehow, he becomes the prophet of his time. Prior fights his disease all alone except for the ongoing support of his best friend, Belize (Victor Terry). Prior has been abandoned by his lover, Louis (Kevin Broccoli). Puppi easily portrays a range of emotion from grand drama to laugh-out-loud comedy. Puppi and Belize is the energy machine that keeps the strength and focus of the production speeding along through almost three hours. Terry is particularly adept at lightening the mood with his comic delivery.

The multi-talented Broccoli co-directed the play with Jill D. Jones. This was a smart move for such a large production. Louis is not a sympathetic character. He abandons Prior in his hour of need, then takes up with another man, only to leave that one as well. C.T. Larsen is Joe Pitt, the other man in Louis’s life. However, in an odd twist of fate, Pitt turns out to be a Mormon Republican Lawyer. Joe Pitt also fights his own demons with a drug-addicted wife (Melanie Stone) and a dominant, Mormon mother-in-law (Joan Batting). Oh, and Joe Pitt’s also suspected of having slept with the real villain of this production – closeted homosexual lawyer Roy Cohn.

Roy Cohn, played with delicious bile by R. Bobby, embodies everything that is evil. Deviant shyster, terminally ill with AIDS, Cohn is haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenbaum – convicted and executed for being a Communist. She sits at his bedside like the angel of death, waiting. Mary Paolino has the plumb part of The Angel who appears to Prior. Paolino stays grounded, yet maintains an other-worldly presence as she shakes Prior out of his sheets. Theodore Clement also plays several parts, but most notably the incensed Bolshevik at the open of the play, wailing about losing everything he has known. Many AIDS victims lost everything, including their lives.

This is a must-see performance with high-level, professional performances. A simplified set serves this production well. Instead of sparkling special effects, the searing performances of the actors are all that is needed. What makes people see things that aren’t really there? Sleep deprivation, dreams, drugs, mental illness and even desperation. Or, an expectation that something will be there makes our minds play the trick of “seeing” it.  I “saw” my father walking up the back stairs to the porch when I glanced out the kitchen window on the day we buried him.

In the end, Louis, like political times gone by, cannot be accepted back into Prior’s life. Too much has changed. Louis’s “politics” no longer fit into the puzzle. Angels in America – Part I continues on June 20 and 27 at 8pm, June 22 and 29 at 2pm; Part II continues on June 21 and 28 at 8pm and June 22 and 29 at 2pm. Both parts will be performed on June 22 and June 29. Recommended for mature audiences. For tickets call The Artists’ Exchange at 401-490-9475.

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