“I usually say, ‘Fuck the truth,’ but mostly the truth fucks you,” says Prior Walter, a homosexual with AIDS in the mid-1980’s. His observation is right on the mark: The Dramat’s “Angels in America: Part 1=Millenium Approaches,” directed by Jonathan Silverstein, is the drama of people trying desperately to say “Fuck the truth,” but who get fucked by the pulverizing truth instead.
There may not be such a thing as a good time to have AIDS, but the Reagan era was probably one of the worst. Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play explores the AIDS crisis in the ’80s through the stories of Prior Walter (Steven Kochevar ’09), Joe Pitt (Bobby Allen ’09) a closeted homosexual Mormon, his Valium-addicted wife Harper (Carly Zien ’08) and Roy Cohn (Matthew McCollum ’11), an egotistical lawyer afraid that his career will be ruined if the truth that he has AIDS surfaces. The characters’ struggle against the prejudices and the religious and political pressures inherent in America exposes their vulnerability to a disease in a diseased society.
“Angels in America” is a play of intense social commentary, yet it is also “a fantasia.” There certainly is an angel in the play, but there are also dead ancestors with powdered wings coming back to life, the Bible miraculously shooting up from the floor, hallucinations where Harper meets a fantastic travel agent in a glittering suit (Mr. Lies) that makes her promises of dream vacations, and even Eskimos — in Antarctica. The director makes great use of the broad range of theatrical devices available to the Dramat in creating a spectacular world where the tragedy of realities is offset by the splendor of dream-worlds. The angel appears in a beautiful golden costume that is as exotic as it is celestial. The mechanics of the shooting Bible are so perfect as to convert the most skeptical audience member, and the green light that accompanies hallucinatory sequences is just the right shade between surreal and eerie.
The play is funny — in a dark, morbid way. When Kochevar’s maudlin yet witty Prior discovers his first lesion, he says with mock delight, “I have a lesion; I am a legionnaire.” You laugh, and then you feel uncomfortable because you just laughed at the symptoms of a man with a deadly disease. Again, when Prior is staring at the mirror when he is in drag, he calls himself a corpse, and then corrects himself: A corpsette. Death, disease, religion and racism are the main sources of humor, and even though there is comic relief throughout the play, it is less relieving than disturbing.
The Dramat’s production doesn’t shirk from graphic content. Full-frontal nudity, gay sex and strong language are successfully shocking and provocative. Thankfully, “Angels” is not sugarcoated with euphemisms; its hard blows are not softened by censorship.
The set is both efficient and effective. Different locations such as the Pitts’ Brooklyn home, the hospital, Cohn’s office, Central Park, Antarctica and Salt Lake City are all accommodated with scaffolding that allows characters plenty of space while conveying the idea of society as a strictly structured construction. Characters that are not involved with the scene watch the action from various parts of the scaffold, thus giving the idea that the private lives of the characters are being carried onto the public sphere as boundaries are crossed. It is important to note that all actors play more than one character, a choice that emphasizes the fact that circumstances bind the characters to one another even when there is no apparent connection within the plot.
At one point in the play, Prior’s boyfriend Louis (Andrew Ash ’08) goes on a diatribe about justice in America that lasts for a long while until Prior stops him by saying he is shitting blood. This is the dichotomy that “Angels in America” invites the viewer to think about: Is it possible to keep talking about justice, freedom and the American way when society is shitting blood?