While the recent HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner's Angels in America made use of lavish sets and special effects, the Columbia literary society Alpha Delta Phi brought the play back to its roots when they produced the drama in Lerner Hall's Black Box Theater over the last two weeks. Kushner's own introductory notes to Angels declare that the play "benefits from a pared-down style of presentation, with minimal scenery and scene shifts done rapidly." And that's just how ADP presented Kushner's monumental dissection of American society, AIDS, and religion.
For those who have never visited the Black Box, the only description necessary is contained in its name: the space is shaped like a box and is painted black. And since the recent implementation of fire code regulations has made the use of scenery or set pieces illegal, student productions may only use the theater's own set of matching black chairs and tables. These pieces of furniture, along with an empty set of bleachers, a wrap-around catwalk, and a small concrete alcove become the stage's only boundaries.
That modest space was the perfect foil for ADP's impressive and passionate production which, under the meticulous direction of Ricky Martin, CC '04, skillfully animated Kushner's sprawling artistic thesis.
Angels in America is divided into two different plays--Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. Each runs for about three and a half hours and follows the same set of seven main characters from October 1985 through February 1986. With the rise of the global AIDS epidemic and the restructuring of Eastern Europe's political economy under Gorbachev's perestroika, the mid-1980s represented a period of monumental social change for Kushner, especially as gay Americans could finally start to live unashamed of their sexuality. Kushner daringly draws on the historical migrations of two peoples in search of religious freedom--Mormons and Jews--to parallel the epic journey undertaken by American gays as they built a new community despite the AIDS outbreak.
Although this struggle for freedom is intrinsically secular, Kushner endows the gay men in these plays with a divinity of their own. Through the prophecy of Prior Walter (Scott Hindley), Tony Kushner constructs a godless religion of sorts for this new age, replete with supernatural beings, an afterlife, and even a holy city: San Francisco. As Prior suffers from AIDS, his boyfriend Louis (Jerry Evarts, CC '04) must grapple with his own response to Prior's illness and possible death while resisting his own self-pity and debilitating Jewish guilt. In Millennium Approaches, another relationship slowly unravels as a Mormon couple's marriage disintegrates. Joe Pitt (Ian Anthony, CC '06) must come to terms with his homosexuality, while his wife Harper (Bergen Cooper, BC '05) faces the difficult task of creating an independent life for herself; years of repression and misery have rendered her unfit to leave the confines of their small apartment except in her elaborate fantasies.
Meanwhile, Joe, a U.S. Court of Appeals clerk, must make some important decisions about a job offer at the State Department in Washington. The position would allow him to help his longtime friend and colleague, the brutal New York power broker and lawyer, Roy Cohn. Cohn, played by John L'Ecuyer, CC '03, made his reputation prosecuting Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the early 1950s, and publicly denied his homosexuality even as AIDS started to take its toll on his professional life.
As Millennium Approaches proceeds, the stability of the play's two couples gradually crumbles, leaving all four characters stranded and unhappy. Evarts thrives in the role of Louis, a deeply ambivalent, sensitive man who looks toward an ancient religion for solutions to his own inadequate theories on justice, love, and compassion. The two couples' fates rapidly intermingle as Joe befriends Louis at the court offices. Joe's relationship with Louis leaves him in the difficult position of trying to relieve the misery he has caused his wife even as he decides whether to leave her.
Bergen Cooper delivers a heartbreaking performance as Harper Pitt, vacillating between a woman torn apart by a tragic marriage and a blithely hopeful, if not psychotic, housewife. The play's concurrent scenes of overlapping and parallel dialogue between the two couples are one of the script's strengths, and Martin stages these moments with precision.
Gradually, these personal conflicts are addressed as Prior's heavenly muse, the Angel of America, reveals herself as part of a full-fledged religion. Roy, however, stubbornly clings to his past actions while the other characters evolve. John L'Ecuyer's rendition is a portrait not of a menacing villain, but of an ironic model of gay power and influence pathetically reduced to a troubled and lonely bedridden man. Additionally, Cara McGee, CC '05, proved herself a talented and versatile actor in this production with notable performances as Emily, Sister Ella Chapter, and a homeless woman.
Martin skillfully directs the actors through their developments and discoveries. A handful of the choices made in regards to the production, however, were not as successful. Some elements of the staging were quite unconventional, and were risks that did not necessarily enhance the production.
Most notably, many of the scenes were accompanied by background music which ranged from the theme songs of Mission Impossible and Jaws to "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." These musical additions seemed forced and distracted from the stage performance; the simple piano melody that was used throughout the play would have been more appropriate. Another less traditional aspect of the staging stood out, mainly because Kushner is so adamant about avoiding it in his introduction to the play. As printed, he wrote, "The Angel is immensely august, serious, and dangerously powerful," and he cautions that the play is "cheapened irreparably" if the actor playing the Angel fails "to convey the gravity of these situations." And while Michela Carattini, GS '05, gives an original and entertaining portrayal of the Angel, the production's sexier, less earnest approach to this highly important figure is a regrettable departure from Kushner's vision.
But as a whole, the pared-down production glows. The subtle lighting design of Cyrus Aghili, SEAS '07, creates smart and original spaces for the actors despite the limitations of the stage, and the authentic yet timeless wardrobe of costume designer Irene Malatesta, BC '04 suits the play perfectly. For while the play is deeply embedded in the political and cultural realities of the '80s, its focus is hauntingly relevant to the new millennium, particularly as questions of romantic commitment and gay rights dominate national debate.