Eugene Weekly : Theater : 11.15.07

A Gay Fantasia On National Themes
Angels deconstructs America

Religion under fire. Relationships under fire. Sex, on fire. Death everywhere. And an angel waits in the wings of the theater, ready to fall. This is the heart of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epic and episodic play Angels in America: Part One: Millennium Approaches. Set in the mid-’80s at the height of corporate power grabs, AIDS unawareness and the tightly shut gay closet, Kushner’s play peers deeply into the American psyche, peeling back the layers of the past century and letting history’s gritty secrets bubble up in the words and actions of the 20 characters who take the stage in OSU’s University Theater production at Withycombe Hall.

The many engineering students in Angels. PHOTO OSU THEATRE ARTS

Of those 20, five characters form the crux. Joe (Jordan Brinck) and his wife, Harper (Brianne Kiso), are transplanted Mormons living in New York City. While stone-eyed Joe struggles with his personal demons (he’s gay, but it conflicts with his religion, which doesn’t recognize homosexuality), Harper lives in a Valium-fueled dreamworld. Louis (Ryan Hodges) lives with his boyfriend, Prior (Jeff Nichols), who is dying of AIDS in a rather messy fashion. These two couples’ lives intersect in realistic and phantasmagorical scenes that reveal each other’s fears and weaknesses.

But it is Roy Cohn (M. Theodore Coolen), based on the real life law advisor to Joseph McCarthy who died of AIDS in 1986, who is the true villian in Kushner’s play. A gay anti-communist neocon, the conflicted Cohn naturally comes through with some of the juiciest lines of the play. “AIDS. Homosexual. Gay. Lesbian,” Cohn tells his doctor. “You think these are the names that tell you who someone sleeps with, but they don’t tell you that.” Cohn’s other lines could be ripped from today’s headlines (and Savage Love letters): “Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man … who fucks around with guys.” Coolen plays Cohn to Larry Craig/Bob Allen/Richard Curtis perfection; a sleazy politico leading dual lives, riding denial to destruction. If for nothing else, see this play for Coolen’s slick performance.

Charlotte Headrick, director of Angels, has her work cut out for her (in the program, Headrick jokingly calls this play “the bear,” one the “most challenging” texts she’s taken on) and, for the most part, stages a competent and industrious production. The set is spare with minimal props that can be rolled on and off by faceless stagehands; a bridge is constructed up stage for chance meetings where characters either connect with each other or show their disconnect (as in the scene where two characters joylessly fuck from opposite sides of the span). Salt Lake City, Wall Street, Central Park, the Bronx, Antarctica: Each setting is hinted at from the spare props and spot-on costumes designed by Barbara Mason. (One character’s “Remember Stonewall” shirt is a deft touch.) But America is not without its problems.

An immediate strike against any director is the fact that Millennium Approaches is merely the first half of an opus (part two is Perestroika), and so can suffer from a feeling of having no rising action (unless you consider characters slowly dying and having profoundly philosophical conversations rising action) other than the periodically mentioned angel in waiting. The best option (and one Kushner himself suggests in the script) is to move quickly, “with minimal scenery and scene shifts done rapidly (no blackouts!).”

Yet, instead of moving quickly between scenes — blackouts are most definitely employed — Headrick directs the actors to move quickly within their scenes. Lines are rushed (and sometimes hard to hear, so sit near the front) while the audience waits between scenes for a screen to descend and ascend for digital image projections. Patience is required in this production, but the message in Kushner’s script, that America has always been more idea than identity — a message as relevant today as it was 20 years ago — is worthy of your attention.

Angels in America: Part One: Millennium Approaches continues through Nov. 17 at OSU’s Withycombe Hall. Tix available at 541-737-2784