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Spine: Anguish, Angels, and the Reagan Revolution: ‘Angels in America’ at Round House Theatre

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Round House Theatre and Olney Theatre Center have teamed up for a truly remarkable Washington event: Parts 1 & 2 of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Angels in America.

Dawn Ursula (The Angel). Photo by Danisha Crosby.

Dawn Ursula (The Angel). Photo by Danisha Crosby.

On Monday, September 12th, Part 1, Millennium Approaches, opened–to a standing ovation with angels, rising from beneath, soaring from above, or simply walking amongst us.

Part II, Perestroika begins in previews September 25th, then opens October 1st.

The play first opened in 1993, while Clinton #1 was in the White House.

Set 8 years earlier in Reagan’s America, at the beginnings of his vaunted revolution–a trickledown, “Starve the Beast” economics of tax-cutting, open markets, and rich-getting-richer–the play’s prophetic spine swirls around hallucinations both historical and mythological, but always personal.

If you don’t know this script, you’ll never guess what’s coming next, as Kushner’s imagination is king, and with madness setting in all around, nothing is out of the ordinary.

It’s fun to be sure, but far, far more serious and brutally painful.

AIDS has begun its death march, the Culture War has heated up, and with America’s “invasion” of Grenada, the Vietnam Syndrome is officially overcome and the bald eagle is on the rampage. Reagan and his Cold Warriors are stomping into the history books with Star Wars, Ollie North, and the aforementioned trickle down which continues to drip to this day.

Thirty years later, Reagan’s economic philosophy continues with an ever increasing polarization, even as the much hullabalooed conservative social agenda, which had hitched a ride on the Reagan train, suffers setbacks, namely around issues of marriage equality.

Fortunately, even with a rich historical perspective, it is Angel’s characters that dominate, and my what a colorful lot of them there is.

And directors Jason Loewith (Millennium Approaches and Ryan Rillette (Perestroika) have assembled a superlative cast.

Tom Story (Prior Walter) and Jonathan Bock (Louis). Photo by Danisha Crosby.

Tom Story (Prior Walter) and Jonathan Bock (Louis). Photo by Danisha Crosby.

There’s the rabbi, Rabbi Chemelwitz, all beard and no sentiment, whom Sarah Marshall brings to hilarious life.

There’s Mr. Lies, the Travel Agent, who’s all fancy pants and ready to groove—Jon Hudson Odom couldn’t have made him cooler.

There are the ancestors, Prior Walter and Prior Walter, given a staircase dance by Thomas Keegan and Mitchell Hébert–and yes that name and that pun are intended, and yes that ancient Anglo-Saxon lineage is coming to an end.

There’s the loving nurse Sister Ella Chapter, given one of the tenderest hands in the show by Dawn Ursula, as well as the famous (or infamous) Ethel Rosenberg (Ms. Marshall once again revealing her multifaceted actor-self) coming to the aid of none other than Roy Cohen, her executioner, stellarly performed by the previously mentioned Mr. Hébert.

And, of course, there’s Belize, played by the versatile Mr. Odom, who combines infinite empathy with a no-nonsense repartee that can cut down the mightiest racially charged intellectualization.

And yes, there had to be a baby-faced Reaganite who stands ready to conquer the world, and who couldn’t help but be baby-faced, as Kimberly Gilbert gave him blushing dimples and a “I’m to happy to be in Washington” naïveté.

And yes, Ms. Gilbert also played the psychologically lost Harper, as she seeks out the coldest place on earth with painful delight.

And all the other central characters from Jonathan Bock’s Louis, whose guilt-ridden soul twists into more knots than a pretzel, to Tom Story’s Prior Walter, the contemporary one, the one visited by ancestors and who is dying from AIDS. His emotional rollercoaster will leave you mesmerized and praying.

Thomas Keegan (Joe Pitt) and Mitchell Hébert (Roy Cohn). Photo by Danisha Crosby.

Thomas Keegan (Joe Pitt) and Mitchell Hébert (Roy Cohn). Photo by Danisha Crosby.

For beyond the characters, or beneath them, roars a profound and crushing grief, not just for the lives being lost but, ironically, for the America that’s passing.

Sure there is humor, lots of it, even in the darkest parts of the production, and if you can resist empathizing with the plight of these characters for a moment, feel free to laugh. If not, feel free not to.

With any revolution, however, even one that rolls back the clock, something cherished must also be lost.

And maybe that “something cherished” is a lie, a nation’s foundational myth suddenly exposed to the harsh, penetrating light of an awakening.

For even a lie can provide comfort when all else is lost.

And that is Kushner’s genius. He has created a masterpiece of association, suffering, imaginative flights, and historical import–in two parts mind you.

He has combined the despicable with the cherished, and has loved them both.

And their passing will bring an ache to the heart as surely the mind.

Yet, the Millennium Approaches will leave you, literally, on the approach: you’ll watch the “plane” fly in.

You’ll wonder what the ultimate message will be.

In Part II, Perestroika, the message will surely follow.

In these days, with Clinton #2 on the horizon, with anticipation and dread, in all sorts of colors and persuasions, blustering everywhere, messages are what we crave most.

Running Time: Three hours, with two 15-minute intermissions.

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Round House Theatre and Olney Theatre Center’s Angels in America: Part 1: Millennium Approaches plays through October 30, 2016 at Round House Theatre -4545 East-West Highway, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 644-1100, or purchase them online.

Angels in America: Part 1: Millennium Approaches is presented in alternating repertory with Angels in America: Part Two: Perestroika.

LINK:
Review: ‘Angels in America: Millennium Approaches’ at Round House Theatre and Olney Theatre Center by David Friscic.

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