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The first thing that you notice when walking into Central Square Theater’s production of “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Part I: Millennium Approaches,” directed by Eric Tucker, is the ethereal emptiness. The theater is transformed into a stark space filled with white fluorescent light, which never dims. Instead, actors walk onstage and casually begin talking, as if the stage is the sidewalk and the audience has just stopped by. In Central Square’s staging, the movers and shakers of these characters’ worlds are not unseen heavenly forces, religious doctrine, or even angels: They are each other.
Set in New York City between 1985 and 1986, “Angels in America Part I: Millennium Approaches” is the first of a two-part epic by Tony Kushner that follows Prior Walter, a gay man with AIDS; Louis Ironson, his boyfriend; Roy Cohn, a gay and closeted, uber-conservative, Republican lawyer; Joe Pitt, a gay and closeted, Mormon, Republican clerk; and Harper, Joe’s wife. The play explores how these characters’ lives intertwine and untangle, and how, despite ideological and identity differences, they are ultimately inseparable from each other.
The characters’ messy connections are highlighted by evocative staging and props by Scenic Designer Deb Sivigny and Props Artisan Karissa Roberts. In the second scene of the play, Roy Cohn is seemingly in control, juggling multiple phones, with the whole city on speed dial. However, skillful prop and set design choices reveal a deeper element to his character. Cohn sits on a wheely office chair, giddily spinning out to actors with phones for him to grab. The phone cords, spooling out like octopus arms, suggest a symbiosis — a messy dependency on the people he despises for being gay, progressive, and lower class. Throughout the play, these relationships are reinforced through the usage of these phones.
The production also utilizes atypical aesthetics in a way that’s ironic, tongue-in-cheek, and current. Belize, a Black “ex-ex drag queen,” enters wearing leopard-print chaps, and his outfits just get more fun from there. Louis Ironson, a gay Jewish man with a penchant for going on political tangents, is exactly the kind of Castro, white, liberal gay that’s just annoying enough to put up with — emphasized by his preppy cuffed jeans and sneakers. Harper, a straight, Mormon housewife and Valium addict who comes to realize that her husband is queer, is dressed in jewel-toned overalls and Converse sneakers, which makes her look more like a young, naive college student than a harried housewife. These costuming choices by Daniele Tyler Mathews create a diverse ensemble cast that play into and against type.
The production also examines how queer beauty is inseparable from tragedy. In one scene, Prior, who has been recently diagnosed with AIDS, is alone at home, getting into drag to cope. He hopes to negate sickness with beauty, undesirability with desirability. However, instead of transforming his face through makeup or festooning himself with glamorous clothing, Prior fashions a makeshift dress from the same white shroud that served, in various parts of the play, as a burial shroud. It could be an allusion to Lady Liberty, or it could be just a dress. The simplicity of the moment is both dignified and heartbreaking: In the world of “Angels in America,” beauty is not an escape from disease and death. Instead, they are cut from the same cloth.
In addition, by juxtaposing different scenes of male intimacy through staging, the play explores the ways that men are socially allowed to seek out closeness and emotional honesty. In one scene, Louis, seeking escape, abandons Prior at the hospital and goes cruising in Central Park. At the same time, Roy and Joe have a heart-to-heart about fatherhood over tumblers of whiskey. As these two scenes unfold around each other — Louis on the ground having sex with an anonymous sex worker and, less than a foot away, Roy and Joe ruminating over what it means to be a good son — the audience is asked to think about how these relationships might not be so different after all.
The staging and props also highlight how the ghosts of queer death and conservative bigotry haunt the play. In one scene, Roy and his political ally Martin are having dinner. While chatting about how they will inevitably secure Republican majorities and pass bills limiting the rights of marginalized groups, Roy and Martin hold a white sheet between them as a table, which hovers above the ground. They drop the sheet, which falls, revealing the concealed body of Prior. The audience realizes that Roy and Martin are literally talking over the dead bodies of men they have killed. In another scene, as Roy implores Joe to join him in Washington, D.C. to support President Ronald Reagan, Roy walks among white sheets on the ground. The detritus calls to mind the bodies of queer people who died due to Reagan’s policies and inaction. These design choices subtly pay tribute to others who are not featured or named in the play but still suffered and died during the AIDS epidemic.
Lastly, the production makes use of an astonishing reveal in the final scenes to signal the arrival of the Angel. Not to spoil anything, but that reveal alone makes the play worth seeing. If an utter transformation of theatrical space is what you’re looking for, “Angels in America” at Central Square Theater is the place to find it.
—Staff writer Sophie H. Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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