Angels in America: Millennium Approaches
What can be said about Tony Kushner’s "Angels in America" that has not already been noted in countless awards, reviews and essays?
Arguably the greatest and most important play of the last quarter of the 20th century, Kushner’s two-part epic is, to quote the opening monologue, "a melting pot where nothing melts." Constructed out of equal parts of history, religion, race, disease, sex, politics, family and sheer theatrical marvel, it has become one of the great achievements of modern theater.
With all of this acclaim, is there any production of the play that can match the spectacle and beauty of the text? Well, Wilma Theater’s wonderful production of Part One, entitled "Millennium Approaches," comes very close.
The first images of the Blanka Zizka’s production are a white room with an incomplete paint job and a smattering of tables and chairs. Set pieces to be used later are clearly visible. Stagehands and actors are seen walking around Matt Saunders’ inventive rehearsal room set, giving the impression of an "Angels" that is stripping away the pomp and grandeur of its own reputation.
This minimalism clashes -- in all the right ways -- with Christopher Colucci’s sound, Russell Champa’s lighting and Oana Botez-Ban’s costumes, all striking and excellent. Instead of leaving humming the sets, the audience is allowed to focus on the words, the emotions and the physical trajectories of characters caught in a stark white limbo that perfectly represents New York City circa 1985.
It is an effect that is simultaneously grand and subtle, expansive and claustrophobic, artificial and sincere. It is a wonderful theatrical trick that sustains for the show’s three-and-a-half-hour running time.
Major kudos are to be given to an amazing ensemble cast. Aubrey Deeker’s Prior makes the most of a difficult role. Often times having to be simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking, Deeker portrays the reluctant new world prophet with an effortless grace and poignancy.
Other highlights include Benjamin Pelteson’s Louis, a bucket of neuroses whose ambivalence is only matched by his self-awareness, Luigi Sottile’s Joe, portraying the breakdown of the American male paradigm, and James Ijames’ Belize, who skillfully rides the line between flamboyant parody and emotional sincerity.
Of the cast, the only performance that does not fully work is Kate Czajkowski’s Harper, whose performance starts off on an interesting note, but unfortunately sustains that note for the entire show.
But it is a minor misstep in a production that continuously strikes all the right notes until the final one. And that last moment is one to remember.
The ending of Part One, is the ultimate cliffhanger, a moment of sheer theatricality that was unparalleled in a play at the time. And Zizka pulls out all the stops to make the final reveal a moment of jaw-dropping spectacle.
Wilma begins their next season with "Perestroika," the second part of "Angels in America," which will be playing in rep with "Millennium Approaches." That leaves a number of opportunities to see a production that truly should not be missed.
"Angels in America: Millennium Approaches" runs through July 1 at the Wilma Theater, 265 South Broad Street in Philadelphia. For info or tickets call 215-546-7824 or visit wilmatheater.org.