Review: Angels in America (Soulpepper)

Soulpepper, Angels of America

Toronto’s Soulpepper presents Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes

If I were to describe playwright Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes in one word it would be “monumental”. All three definitions of the word apply to the work; “great in extent or size”, “great in importance”, but also “serving as a monument”. Angels in America is widely recognized as a landmark of queer theatre and one of the most important dramas of the late 20th century.

Angels in America is comprised of two plays; Part I: Millennium Approaches and Part II: Perestroika, focusing on seven characters navigating an intricate web of relationships in New York City in the mid-1980s during the height of the AIDS crisis. The characters are complex, compelling and deeply flawed and Kushner’s script alternately examines themes of sexuality, gender, race, politics, and religion, thoroughly capturing the zeitgeist of the era.

It’s incredibly ambitious in scope and scale; Soulpepper is only the third company to stage Angels in America in Toronto. Since it is such a monumental work and one that’s staged so rarely, you really get a sense that Angels in America is something you ought to go see.

Indeed, I was really looking forward to seeing it but I was also a bit daunted. It’s two plays, each clocking in at 3 hours in length, each with two intermissions for a sum total of six hours of theatre. In the hands of a lesser theatre company Angels in America could be an excruciating experience.

Happily, with the skillful direction of Albert Schultz and the incredible talents of an experienced ensemble, Soulpepper’s production of Angels in America is excellent. It’s a testament to the talents of the cast and creative team that both 3-hour plays are so well-performed and directed that the work is completely engrossing and time just flies by.

There really isn’t a weak link in the cast but standouts for me include Damien Atkins as Prior Walter, an AIDS patient who embarks on a quest after being visited by an angel; Gregory Prest as the conflicted Louis Ironson, Prior’s bookish and neurotic lover who leaves him at the height of his illness; and Michelle Monteith as schizophrenic Mormon house wife Harper Pitt.

Albert Schultz’s direction is spot-on; scenes blend seamlessly into one another, there is rarely ever a break in the flow of the proceedings. Part II: Perestroika doesn’t flow quite as easily as Part I given the wild flights of fantasy in the script of the second play but the pacing still never lags.

I also liked Schultz’s choice of having certain actors remain on stage after the blackout transition to intermission and then having them pre-set on stage for the next act during intermission as a means of keeping the audience in the story and ready to pick up the action immediately after the intervals.

I was also particularly fascinated by the content and context of the play. I imagine its frank discussion of sexual politics and gay themes would have been really controversial for its time. While it’s not as completely topical as it was when it debuted in the early ‘90s, Angels in America endures as a compelling work of classical drama that perfectly captures the pervading issues of its time.

It’s fascinating to see how some of the topics explored have become antiquated in the past twenty years while others endure. The staunch Republican lawyer Roy Cohn’s (Diego Matamoros) tirades against Communism and the “reds” was relevant during the Cold War years but now seems like a relic of the past. In contrast, the African-American former drag queen Belize (Troy Adams) engages in some particularly compelling debates on race in America with Louis (a Reform Jew) that are as relevant today as they were in the Reagan era.

Although the two plays have been staged separately before, for a complete experience it’s really worth the commitment to see both parts in order. Part I ends abruptly with no sense of closure and you need the plot set-up and character development of Part I to fully understand Part II.

I love the fact that a classical theatre company like Soulpepper is pushing itself beyond the safer confines of the classical theatre repertoire to stage a work like Angels in America. The result is expertly designed, directed and performed; a riveting, thoroughly satisfying theatrical experience that’s not to be missed.

Details:

  • Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches and Part II: Perestroika are playing from July 19 – September 14, 2013 at the Young Centre for the Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, in the Distillery Historic District, Toronto.
  • Tickets $22 – $68 (plus service charge); Discounts available when buying tickets to both parts together
  • Tickets are available in person at the venue box office, by phone at 416-866-8666 or online at soulpepper.ca.

Photo of Raquel Duffy & Damien Atkins by Cylla von Tiedemann.