Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Angels in America at Olympia Little Theatre

Under the direction of Niclas R. Olson and with super performances by a cast including Christian Carvajal, Anthony Neff, Bonnie Vandver, Austin C. Lang, Terrence Lockwood, Sara May, and Andrea Weston-Smart, Olympia Little Theatre’s staged reading of Angels in America Part I: Millennium Approaches is a new high for local theater.
It is a huge show in more ways than one. It is huge in concept and in length (it is a two-part, seven-act behemoth; part one is three acts, approximately three hours in length including two 10-minute intermissions), and it is monumental in the manner in which the controversial-for-its-time subject matter is handled. It is the story of the early years of the AIDS epidemic when President Ronald Reagan refused to even acknowledge the existence of what was then often referred to as the gay cancer. Written by activist playwright Tony Kushner, Angels in America (the two parts combined) captured two Tony Awards, two Drama Desk Awards and a Pulitzer Prize.  
Olympia Little Theatre is doing it as a staged reading. Unfortunately, the run of the play is so short that I can’t post this review of part one before its final production. I can only hope that my review of part one will encourage theater goers to see part two, which runs Feb. 26 to March 1.
Being a staged reading, the actors are “on book.” But most of them have their lines down so well that the scripts they hold in hand are almost props. They rarely glance at the words, and in almost every other way it is a fully produced show.
The set design by Olson is ingenious. In his director’s notes he quotes Kushner: “It’s OK that the wires show, and maybe it’s good that they do, but the magic should at the same time be thoroughly amazing.” Olson’s set design enhances this concept. It looks like a warehouse of sorts, with stacks of trunks, suitcases, tables and chairs, a fold-up bed, and cardboard boxes representing various offices and apartments in New York. The back wall is unfinished, with exposed studs, and a huge stack of boxes fills in one large gap in the wall. This set makes no sense in terms of accurately depicting the various settings, but it marvelously creates the mood of the play and allows characters to interact without having to change sets.
Joe Pitt (Neff) is an up-and-coming political operative who is married to Harper Pitt (May) and who quits his clerking job in New York to go to work for Roy Cohn (Carvajal). Cohn was a ruthless political operative and one of the few actual historic characters in the play. He helped Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the Communist witch hunts and helped prosecute Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Cohn was also a semi-closeted gay man—in the play he says he’s not gay but he fucks men. He says it repeatedly and defiantly. Joe Pitt is also gay, but has not yet come to terms with his sexual orientation.
In contrast to Cohn and Pitt, Louis Ironson (Lang) and Prior Walter (Phil Folan) are an openly gay couple who desperately love one another. Prior is dying of AIDS, and the role of caretaker is more than Ironson can handle.
I will not get in the plot any further except to say that there are heavy religious themes (Cohn and Prior are both Jewish, and Pitt is Mormon), and many of the characters interact with ghosts and angels.
Carjaval, Lang and Folan turn in excellent performances. In supporting roles, Bonnie Vandver does a yoman’s job of playing numerous characters, including a rabbi, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, and Joe Pitt’s mother, and May nicely handles the challenging assignment of portraying Pitt’s somewhat mentally ill wife, Harper. Weston-Smart is believable in a variety of roles, including the angel of the title. Lockwood manages to be campy without going overboard as a former drag performer.
This is a powerful, disturbing and intellectually challenging play about gay and religious themes and liberally sprinkled with adult language.
Part II: “Perestroika” opens Feb. 26.
WHEN: 7:55 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 1:55 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26 - March. 1
WHERE: Olympia Little Theatre, 1925 Miller Ave., NE, Olympia
INFORMATION: (360) 786-9484, http://olympialittletheater.org/
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