Belvoir presents ANGELS IN AMERICA - A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Part One: Millennium Approaches. Part Two: Perestroika. At the Belvoir Upstairs Theatre, Surry Hills.
ANGELS IN AMERICA - A Gay Fantasia on National Themes by Tony Kushner is an almost six hour play written in two separate parts: Part One: Millennium Approaches (1990); Part Two: Perestroika (1993). The Belvoir Theatre Company are presenting both parts of this play, directed by Eamon Flack. It is a truly marvelous experience. Both plays are simply, still, twenty years later, astounding writing. The company of actors (eight of them) are giving wonderful performances. The director and the design team, all of them, have created a place and spaces for the play to be revealed untrammeled, in its human observations, filtered through the mind of Mr Kushner with all of his restless urgencies and questings. This is a deeply affecting production and I encourage all of you to see it.
It is 20 years, since the original appearance of these two plays. Hardly believable, is it? Both of them stand-up to the scrutiny of those passing years, and shockingly, still, stand relevantly powerful in all of their many facets. It is dramatic, it is farcical, it is melodramatic, it is comic, it is a soap opera, it is an epic, it is religious, it is philosophic, it is hallucinogenic, it is surreal, it is entertaining, it is challenging, it is moving, it is depressing, it is optimistic. It is just GREAT. Or, as Ben Brantley comments in the New York Times in his review of the Signature Theatre's revival in 2010 (28th October): "The received wisdom about Mr Kushner is that he is a great playwright. This production reminds us that he is also a good one, which as far as satisfying nights at the theatre are concerned, may be more important." I concur with this having seen the Belvoir production.
MILLENNIUM APPROACHES has a taut, efficient narrative, and I've never seen any need to change it. In this edition it's substantially the same play that was first published nearly twenty years ago, although as the result on the work of both parts of ANGELS for the Signature Theatre's 2010 revival a few minor alterations were made to it.
Far more significantly, I discovered in PERESTROIKA what I believe to be a missing thread in its narrative, the substructural space for which, I realised, I'd laid in long before I knew how to make use of it. In this version with a little help from my friends and a very long preview period, the thread has been woven in. I won't specify to which moments I'm referring, because calling attention to it would undermine the effort to integrate the new material. Of course there are two other versions of PERESTROIKA in print, and anyone with sufficient time and interest can make comparisons, but most people have better things to do with their time. Life, after all, is shorter than we think.I saw these two plays on two separate dates. A Wednesday night, and then, two and a half weeks later, on a Saturday night. After the First Part; MILLENNIUM APPROACHES, which was very familiar, having seen several other productions of it, and, although my guest and I were impressed, generally, with this production, the appearance of the Angel, at the conclusion of Part One, rather than the anticipated terrifying, Spielbergian vision in "unearthly light, spreading great opalescent gray-silver wings" with a CRASH through a cascading roof of plaster, shuddering the building, descending into the room and floating above the bed; at Belvoir, it was visually on the par with my local church Nativity Angel (circa.1955) with shabby wing span, hardly wider than the shoulders of the actor, with a home made costume made from white sheets and dressing gown cord, climbing onto and standing on a short metal ladder from the local hardware store, BUNNINGS! (see the above photograph!). It did not inspire, necessarily, an overwhelming need to see Part Two. The impactful epic element of the production was missed by us, immensely. We were let down. We chatted as we walked to the bus in the rain: "Part Two is also, (was), the more difficult and disjointed half, the writing not so clear, good, - was it worth a further three and half hours?" - so hesitation, about coming back. Time and money!
I did. My guest did not. I am glad I did, it was a stunning continuation and I have encouraged my friend to catch up with the rest of Mr Kushner's revised vision. I am not sure whether it was that the First Part, because of its familiarity, had seemed to have lost some of its rage, its potency, and, although 'good', was not necessary viewing, any longer, that infected our deliberations. I remembered sitting in the auditorium down at the Wharf 1, in the early '90's literally terrified in my seat, sitting among an audience that may have been checking their 'dark freckles' as sign of illness, as I was; recollecting visits that I had made to St Vincent's Hospital, watching friends begin, and take the journey to death; dredging up the visits that I had avoided - too cowardly to face (I lived, both, in San Francisco and Sydney at this time, it was an overwhelming time - particularly if one was working in the Arts); and, on this recent Wednesday night found myself watching a little more objectively, historically, and so a little more, remotely. For me, this play was never a fiction it was a mirror to my life and it had been shattering, my life and the mirror. On that Wednesday night, It seemed not so, anymore. (Further thoughts: I may also have had the smugness of a survivor; and, or, the guilt of a survivor as well, two weeks ago.)
Part Two, PERESTROIKA, I had, I think, only seen once before, and it was, from memory, fairly underprepared as a production when I saw it at the Wharf, and, so, was underwhelming in its focus, and, I did not have any necessary or visceral memories of it. I don't think I had even read it since then, either. So, on Saturday night, the strength of the new writing, the extraordinary passion of the acting and the laser-like concentration of the production seized and gripped me in that first act with such power that I was shaken into excavating deep pools of denial of my own behavior, causing the bubbling up of a kind of rage, crying excitedly but quietly in my seat, because many of us, sitting a little complacently in the theatre, believe that this epidemic, known as AIDS is over - which, it kind of is, for us Western middle-class white people, who have the drug regime available and affordable - knowing that Africa, South America, China, India are being ravaged by this bio-logical catastrophe and further by capitalism in the guise of unco-operative international drug companies! Thousands upon thousands of humans are dying. Still exhausting, awful deaths.Today.
The world of ANGELS IN AMERICA, Mr Kushner told us, in 1993:
"...The world howls without; it is at this moment a very terrible world–what the first character in PERESTROIKA calls an 'inevident welter of fact, event, phenomenon, calamity."I bemoan our ignoring of that. In 2013 Mr Kushner can still give us the same information and the final speech of Prior that concludes the play, still starkly true:
"This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.
You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.
And I bless you: MORE LIFE.
The Great Work begins."These words seem more relevant, more urgent than before. The Great Work still is beginning for most of the world. How slow is change? How long will it take for the great work to be achieved? That the reported story by Nick O'Malley in the Friday, 28th June, 2013 Sydney Morning Herald (p.15) of "Gay couples win landmark case" seems even more important than ever. My friends in the USA think so. Know so. They will not be secret any more. They will have equal rights as citizens of that country. Perhaps, some other Angel has landed in America? or, have my friends and I celebrated too soon? - the anti-angel is still fiercely present.
The politics in this play, as you can read, stirs me mightily. The sheer audacity of the writing is motivating, inspiring. It is truly, as the title tells us: a fantasia - a literary work that is not curbed by any fixed plan (well, at least in imaginary conception, there was later deliberate detail shaping, as well!). The worlds that Mr Kushner bounces to and from: the Jewish faith and the beliefs of their prophets; the Mormon faith and it's beliefs; the world of race discrimination, in instance, the African-American experience; the homosexual world, its beliefs, its practices and hierarchies; the world of government politics - the past and the present (Roy Cohn, Ethel Rosenberg and Ronald Regan, for instance); the philosophies of Karl Marx and the faces of capitalism; the story of love between bisexual and homosexual couples; the despair of rejection; the delusions, illusions of hallucinogenic drugs - illegal and legal ones, is staggering. The range of the comic and dramatic prisms which Mr Kushner employs to keep the action of his message moving forward is thrilling in its daring. It steps into the shoes of one of Mr Kushner's playwriting heroes: Bertold Brecht - and except for the lack of songs and music - uses the Brechtian intentions and skills, wholeheartedly. It reveals Mr Kushner's belief in "... the power of the theatre to teach and heal through compassion, through shared agony. ..."  offering a critical consciousness for his audience, how to look at the world, to see it with a double vision - that, which is on the stage, and what is in the 'real' world, that has been captured, refracted back to us in this darkened space of a theatre.
Unapologetically, Mr Kushner has talked of his love of language and while admiring the economy of the Beckettian school in deliberated sparseness, prefers that of another of his heroes, Herman Melville: "He (Melville) is very, very great, as deep as deep can be, vast, capable of unnerving insight ..." and is not hesitant to explore divergent paths from his main road of literary intent. Someone who is "nuts" about language and models: " why use one word when there are six! …pushing language by over clarifying, by over emphasising and sometimes by pulling in obscurities - towards a nonrational or superrational mysticality, towards music"  - continuing to explore and play with the structure of language.
Some random, and I do mean RANDOM, as there is so much 'treasure' here, instances in point:
Roy: ... What the fuck do you think this is, Sunday School?OR:
Joe: No, but Roy this is . . .
Roy: This is . . . this is gastric juices churning, this is enzymes and acids, this is intestinal is what this is, bowel movements and blood-red meat–this stinks, this is politics, Joe, the game of being alive. And you think you're . . . What? Above what? Dead! In the clouds! You're on earth, goddammit! Plant a foot, stay a while.
I'm sick. They smell I'm weak. They want blood this time. I must have eyes in Justice. In Justice you will protect me.
Harper: ... I feel like shit but I've never felt more alive. I've finally found the secret of all that Mormon energy. Devastation. That's what makes people migrate, build things. Heartbroken people do it, people who have lost love. Because I don't think God loves His people any better than Joe loved me.The string was cut, and off he went.
I have to go now. I'm ready to lose him. Armed with the truth. He's got a sweet hollow center, but he's the nothing man.
I hope you come back. Look at this place. Can you imagine spending eternity here?
Prior: It's supposed to look like San Francisco.
Harper: (Looking around) Ugh.
Prior: Oh but the real San Francisco, on earth, is unspeakably beautiful.
Harper: Unspeakable Beauty.
That's something I would like to see.
Antarctica (yes, Antarctica, for real): I I I I do not weep for them, I I I I weep for vexation of the Blank Spaces, I weep for Dancing Light, for the irremediable wastage of Fossils Fuels, Old Blood of the Globe spilled wantonly or burned and jettisoned into the Crystal Air, I I I I delight in their suffering, I I I I will never relent, let them reap the harvest of . . .
I mean, is that, not just outrageous, but, also, beautiful expression?!! And there is nearly six hours of it. How, contemporaneously rare to have such language float out at us? A kind of literary music. Both poetic, and totally, totally cogent, with the pulse of the urgent present - it sounds real, it is understandable - heightened, muscular, intrinsic, for sure - but it has the ease of naturalness, of truth, and, of beauty. Even when read, let alone when faithfully spoken, it is of "Unspeakable beauty." Voluptuous and bejewelled language (can you believe it, there is an operatic version of this play?)
Eamon Flack is the director of this production, and he is Associate Director - New Projects at Belvoir. Somehow, he has convinced his other artistic associates to reverse what seemed to be a 'policy' at Belvoir (witness STRANGE INTERLUDE, DEATH OF A SALESMAN, PRIVATE LIVES, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF) and assured them that there is no need to make ANGELS IN AMERICA more accessible for the Sydney audience by using an Australian dialect or even re-writing the material, (with or without permission of the writer or their representatives), changing location or any other artistic shenanigan and, instead, simply attempt to explore what the writer offers on the page, and truly discover for us, with us, and trusting us, that audience, that we will find through the joint experience of the performance, why this play, as writ, is a modern classic of the world stage.
With a throw in-the-air of silver glitter, perhaps, Mr Flack has ventured where the Belvoir has not ventured for some time with its choices of titles from the classic canon of recent Western Dramatic Literature (by the way, good marketing to keep the original titles and author names attached). And guess what? He and his company of actors and the other artists have produced for Belvoir a truly great night in the theatre. Theatre, where the writer seems to be in the driving seat. For, it seemed to me that Mr Flack has guided his actors meticulously through the text and attempted to solve the issues, explore the difficulties and joys of making Mr Kushner's words, flesh. (American Dialect Coach, Paige Walker-Carlton). The production has the energy of a missionary zeal. And, I mean, on many levels of mission. For, relievedly, even more painstakingly, the text seems to have been 'close-read' with the syntax and creative spaces between the words, properly dealt with, and, made actIon.
In interview Mr Kushner talks of his meticulous writing habit (he spent over five years writing these two plays):
The choice of formatting is important. Writing a play is like writing a poem - it matters where the line break happens. A great critic of poetry, like Helen Vendler, reads not just the words but the spaces in a poem. Punctuation marks in a play are as powerful as they are in poems. 'PLEASE BELIEVE THE PUNCTUATION.' I always tell my playwrighting students that these choices are critically important. Even tiny choices. Is it "James, colon, line of dialogue, Mary, colon, line of dialogue," or, is the character name centred above the line? Is the character name underlined? not underlined? Capitalized? Is the script single spaced? These decisions will have an impact on the way a play is read and on the way it is performed. Each playwright has his or her way of doing things, BUT the choices matter. A play is both a score for a kinetic event and its literature. .
This is what this playwright is saying about his work. No less other great writers, for I have read elsewhere: Oscar Wilde deliberated for a day to replace that comma with a full stop. Evelyn Waugh spent the day etc. etc. etc. These great artists have spent time deliberating on such 'musical' clues to their work, and it is the performing artists responsibility to deal with those clues to the music of the character and the pulsing sweep of the narrative, not to ignore and override them. Or, worse, to be ignorant of them.
Look at the meticulous published text (even the layout is fascinating) of these plays published by Theatre Communications Group, to understand the care that Mr Kushner has taken. G. B. Shaw, supervised the publication of all his plays and there is much information to be mined to understand and play Shaw in the close reading of his texts. Tom Stoppard, once in conversation, explained that he travels the world to nurture other productions of his work [this was on the occasion of the American Conservatory Theatre's first production of ARCADIA] to preserve "the clarity of utterance" of his text, the words and the syntax. The vocabulary and the music. And he (the writer with the director) did make tiny alterations, mostly to find the American rhythm for some small passages that otherwise were not translating musically, felicitously enough for the comic health of his play in San Francisco, as compared to the London audience's comprehension -it is a kind of translating, from an English-English, to an American-English, from one English form to another - interesting n'est pas?)
When one looks at the script of PRIVATE LIVES that Belvoir began rehearsal work with, with all the syntax and other instructions removed, (it is available on line, I believe) one can see the difficulties, if one respects the writer, it must bring, to honor the writer, if half of his guiding text is missing. In extremis, it is like taking the music note from the song and just leaving the words. The poet's words without Mozart's music. Oscar Hammerstein’s words without Richard Rogers music . One would like to read the adaptation of MISS JULIE that Simon Stone has made and see whether the syntax and other clues of his will be removed before rehearsal, or, whether the whole vision of Mr Stone's conception will be honored - syntax and descriptions of action, vocabulary and music, song and physical 'choreography'. Thankfully, Mr Flack sees the benefits of a 'close-reading' of the author’s text, in this case, Tony Kushner, and accepting the challenge of finding the embodiment of these ideas on the page with his cast to present ANGELS IN AMERICA as best we Australians in 2013 can do through our own unique cultural prism. It is that that makes this Belvoir production an Australian reading and production, not the cavalier re-writing or approximate appropriating of the text, we, as an audience, have recently, usually, borne.
All eight members of this cast are giving wonderful performances, and considering the gap of time I had in seeing the company at work, between Part One and Part Two, I felt the work had become more embodied and free in its expression over that time. The confidence of characterization and storytelling was immensely more secure. There is great reward in seeing the whole play, naturally, to take in the scope of the storytelling of the writer, but, as well, in seeing this small company of actors bloom inventively under the length and pressure of the writer's demands over the epic arc of the nearly six hours. It is in the cumulative second play that one begins to admire the work of Paula Arundell and Robyn Nevin in their many roles and responsibilities, (although, I could not hear Ms Nevin's Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz in the beginning of the First Part, nor understand at all, because of the low volume and the bafflement of the actor's chosen characteristics obfuscating clear meaning in her creation of Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov, at the start of Part Two - both offers very vexing, indeed - especially, since both characters kicked off the two halves, it was like missing, perhaps, the first line of a sonnet, it took some time to catch on to the rest of the act, and, especially because of the relative clarity of the rest of Ms Nevin's work). Amber McMahon as Harper grew in stature in the second half. Her first half did not seem to have the right balance of fragility, delicacy that I had come to expect, had read in that role. Harper's gathering strength was wonderfully charted, communicated in Part Two. Marcus Graham, seems to be giving a reading of Roy Cohn that is strikingly different from that usually received, the choices here are of Roy Cohn as a kind of benign father figure to Joe and not the "polestar of human evil, he's like the worst human being who ever lived, he isn't human even, he's . . . " and I felt it did unbalance the play, especially in Part One where I felt if there isn't the DEVIL on stage there cannot be an ANGEL. Whatever?, the performance is still, cumulatively, well drawn if not terrifying - of terror.
The opening act of Part Two was where I switched on to Luke Mullins as Prior Walter. I had resisted his too careful work in the first part. It seemed too self-conscious, deliberate, organized - actorly objectivity. But it was in the wrestling with the Angel and Belize in the course of that magnificent first act of PERESTROIKA, that, then, he stopped being so careful, perhaps so cerebral, as an actor, and burst the boundaries of good taste and control, and exploded with visceral energies and desperate passions into a totally possessed character. I was won and on board for most of the rest of the play's journey. Deobia Oparei, repeating the creation of Belize, which he explored nearly twenty years ago down at the STC in the Michael Gow production, has honed the shaping of the performance beautifully: funny, camp, gay, wise, intelligent, emotionally powerful, physically threatening, naturally nurturing and a victor over victimisation, the double whammy of being black and gay in America -the true hero in the cast of characters - the great human being of the play. I thought that the Second Scene in Act Three of MILLENNIUM APPROACHES with Louis was electrifying, and it, and Mr Oparei took us to empathetic and intellectual perceptual heights in Part Two.
Ashley Zuckerman as Joseph Porter Pitt or more familiarly, Joe, the Mormon, gives a great performance of human conflict, one that requires Joe to struggle between being strategic, substantive and ethical. The dilemmas are heartbreaking and Mr Zuckerman seems to have, for me, at least, that capability of deep thoughtfulness and great vulnerability, combined with a strong masculine presence. The character, as created by Mr Zuckerman, carries the guilt of the audience in its dealing with its own prejudices, how we live with them, and act them out. That he is defeated by stupid compromise to 'traditions' and traditional thinking, systems - in the end a reluctant fundamentalist - is a statement of many of our own positions, maybe, unless we have the courage and capacity of an angel, perhaps, to change? This performance appears to have the spine of what may be Mr Zuckerman's own personalized qualities, for I remember being aesthetically arrested by his Orlando in the Belvoir, AS YOU LIKE IT a few years ago and was similarly moved and empathetic - I was made to pay close attention. An actor's actor at work, maybe.
Mitchell Butel as Louis Ironson gives the performance of the play. Louis, the 'thinking' conflicted theorist of the play, trying to fit his intellectual theories into the patently obvious failure of life as lived in all its spheres, to try to match them in their theoretical idealised ways. To see, and, especially, hear Mr Butel's Louis debate them, is like jumping onto a roller-coaster ride, being 'shit scared' and yet being sure that it will all work out well at the end, in the end. He will bring us to safety if we join him, Mr Butel assures us. Mr Butel has always been impressive and is a genuine triple threat as actor, singer and dancer, as his CV demonstrates, and here in ANGELS IN AMERICA brings all those disciplines, graces, and clarity of those skills, bearing great emotional depth, vulnerability, and a mighty direct zeal of passion to the Kushner creation/objective, with such secure speed of thought and speech and physical action, that the time in the theatre feels unlaboured, which it otherwise can with a lesser actor, in this kind of role. The complexities of those debates which Louis holds throughout the play with the other characters are so deftly tuned to this actor's instrument, so, passionate, and so clear, and so stimulating, that exhaustion on our part is never given an opportunity to be felt. Mr Butel seems to be inspired. His vocal patterns and physical expressions fit the tasks and he certainly inspires his other players, for the games they play with him in their scenes are scintillating, seem to catch fire with clarifying illumination and we reap the reward of great acting: total understanding, active time consumption and emotional contentments.
Despite my recently grown abhorrence of the public tiled space, walls and floor, being used to contain a play, again in Sydney, here, Michael Hankin has found a way to make this aesthetic choice represent what? - a bathroom, an operating theatre, a morgue? - and be useful with that imagery, thematically. It is, as well, in its yellowish gleaming tinge, an aptly open space that allows the bringing on of props and furniture easily, even breeezily, to keep the story propelled. The envelope-post box shaped, white curtained space on one of the walls is amusingly, highly theatrical and effective in keeping the action moving and delectably, teasingly rewarding. (I sat on the right bank - audience p.o.v -.the first show and did not appreciate the set design as wonderfully as when I sat in the left bank of seats on the second night - it works at different variants of success depending on your seating position, it seems.) Costumes (and make-ups, I presume), by Mel Page were perfect for their function and ability to quick change - except for that most disappointing Angel. Lighting: dynamic and flexible from Niklas Pajanti, assisted in their presentational effects, by a Music Composition of a huge range of musical style interludes by Alan John, organized in the space by a further affective Sound Design by Steve Francis. Mr Flack deputed with rousing skill the scene changes by the stage management and all the company of actors, allowing the Brechtian penchant to show all the strings in the creation of this magic, show. The audience and this wonderful company of artists thought and felt as one on this long journey. Mr Flack does not seem to have made a choice, except that Angel, wrong footedly. Congratulations, indeed.
Belvoir delivers, at last, a production that few should find debatable in its merits (Meyerhold would find that, a reason to think the production a failure, believing the equally divided opinion, fore and against, denoted a theatrical desirability and preference). I believe this is a good production of a great play. Such, that I have always placed Anton Chekhov's THREE SISTERS as my favorite play of the twentieth century, with DEATH OF A SALESMAN following it. This production of the whole of Tony Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA, has given me reason to displace Arthur Miller's play to third position. Serious change indeed!
Just to balance the ballast of my pleasure, I thought I should just finish my diary entry with a contrary point of view of the play (if not this production). From Lee Siegel of The New Republic:
ANGELS IN AMERICA is a second-rate play written by a second-rate playwright who happens to be gay, and because he has written a play about being gay and about AIDS, no one - and I mean no one - is going to call ANGELS IN AMERICA the overwrought, coarse, posturing, formulaic mess that it is. .
Get to Belvoir to postulate, formulate your point of view. I guarantee you will have one angelic/hell of a time.
P.S. If you like this text, make sure you catch LINCOLN, again - adapted by Mr Kushner and just the very title of his latest long play :THE INTELLIGENT HOMOSEXUAL'S GUIDE TO CAPITALISM AND SOCIALISM WITH A KEY TO THE SCRIPTURES, sounds similarly provocative, don't you think? Bring it on.
N.B. References are quoted from the Belvoir Program Notes.
Quotes from the play are from the ANGELS IN AMERICA, Parts One and Two text, published by Theatre Communications Group - 1992-1993 and 1992-1994, respectively.
- The Paris Review: Interviews, Tony Kushner, The Art of Theatre, No.16. Interviewed by Catherine Steindler.