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Random acts of kindness are seen in our day-to-day lives, often performed by strangers, sometimes by those who know us. What are rarely seen are enormous acts of courage: people standing up and doing something others may otherwise be afraid of doing for fear of backlash from groups who have dissimilar views.
UNCSA's production of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize winning play Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches, playing now through February 28th at the Catawba Theatre on the UNCSA's campus, is one of these momentous acts of courage rarely seen in theatres nowadays. It is a winning production in all regards and will probably become the hottest theatre ticket in the Triad this month.
North Carolina has a long history with Angels in America. The play was first performed notoriously in 1996 in Charlotte, resulting in officials prosecuting actors in the play for indecent exposure, in turn resulting in the demise of the producing company. It wasn't until over ten years later that the play was reproduced in the Queen City, to great acclaim. Since 1996, like the times, the theatrical climate became more welcoming of controversial plays and the state has welcomed with open arms (and its share of backlash) successful productions of the play. I was lucky enough to see PlayMakers Rep's production of both Parts 1 & 2 a few years back which set the bar high for productions to come.*
Until this production, directed by UNCSA alum Jeremy Skidmore.
The production follows a diverse cast of characters who are all affected in some way by AIDS, the Ronald Reagan era, loss, death, and love in the span of three hours (and this is just the first part!). Skidmore has assembled one of the liveliest ensembles in recent memory, each actor stepping up his/her game to breathe life into Kushner's spare poetry. Alex Bodine, who plays Prior Walter – a tough gay man dying of AIDS and dealing with the rejection of his lover Louis (a quietly subtle Wil Bethmann) – delivers a challenging role with enough pathos and bravura acting that this role could be considered star-making.
Other standouts include Matthew Van Gessel as the lizard-like Roy Cohn, whose performance is so slimy and unnerving that we end up realizing Roy is not unlike any of the suits we read about every day in the news. Some things never change, I guess. Andrew Manning, Emma Coulter, and David Bowen play their roles with tight precision, though I wish they had given their scenes less control and more emotional turns.
The mutable set, designed by Dustin Vandenberg, moved with speed and accuracy so as to match the energy of the fast transitions from scene to scene. Lisa Renkel's projections shifted shapes to fit the set perfectly.
The only fault I found in an otherwise near-perfect production was a lack of mobile pace throughout the entire play. The transitions moved well, though the energy of the acting lagged a bit in the second and third acts, which did not detract from anything, but rather than made the play feel its length. As the run goes on, I anticipate this will change.
Kushner's work is one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century. His characters are specific yet with enough universal focus to identify them as people we know, and eventually to know ourselves. There is a touch of magical realism in the play that reminds me of the late Gabriel Garcia-Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude, where reality never ceases despite the magical elements in it. Skidmore and the entire team do a superb job in grounding this production in reality, so when the magical elements arrive (the penultimate finale will take your breath away), we feel it's what is meant to happen.
What is meant to happen is for this production to be received with great acclaim during its run. For the courageous act of mounting a production as challenging theatrically and socially as Angels, Skidmore, the cast and crew, and UNCSA deserve a chapter in North Carolina history books. It is a play about everyone, meant to be seen by everyone.
Performances of Angels, Part 1 continue through the afternoon of Feb. 22 and then from Feb. 25-28. For details, see the sidebar.