[For Thom White's review of part one of the District Theatre's Angels in America, visit "Darkness and Plight."]
Something clicked for the cast and crew of the District Theatre's Angels in America: Millennium Approaches since November, and now Angels' second half, Perestroika, is notably better for it. Director Deb Shippy and her cast have embraced the humor of playwright Tony Kushner's magnum opus, and the result is an emotionally layered staging that's superior to last fall's production.
I went into Perestroika, the continuation of Kushner's "gay fantasia on national themes," somewhat dreading what I thought would be a four-hour experience, especially given my mixed feelings about the District's Millenium Approaches. Yet Shippy trimmed the script and held tight to the pacing reins (the show, including intermissions, runs two hours 40 minutes), and I ended up feeling a full spectrum of emotions - welling up, feeling pity, getting angry, and even, ahem, getting a little turned on in between laughs.
The turn-on was due to John Antonin Dieter's take on the overly analytic, all-too-critical Lewis, who, in Millenium Approaches, left his boyfriend Prior (Anthony Natarelli) in the most painful throes of AIDS while Lewis explored a physical relationship with the married, Mormon, just-peeking-out-of-the-closet Joe (Andy Curtiss). Early in Perestroika, Louis tries to convince Joe to spend the night with him by talking about the sense of smell, describing how it involves taking molecules of someone or something into one's self. It's a geeky, science-y sort of conversation that could have been boring if not for Dieter's delivery. While barely touching (though definitely sniffing) Curtiss, Dieter employs layers of sensuality in his inflections as Louis woos Joe, and in so doing, wooed me, too; the men are fully clothed and barely make contact, but it's one of the most effectively sexual scenes I've witnessed on a local stage.
It helps that the actors are less constricted than they would've been in Millenium Approaches. For Perestroika, scenic designer Tristan Tapscott has eliminated the previous production's platforms in favor of a multifunctional space that doesn't confine characters to specific, and cramped, locations. Tapscott's design also has a clear intent to it in the way it incorporates Kushner's themes and tones, most distinctly in Tapscott's use of unnaturally placed windows, a door, and especially several open suitcases, each seeming to float as they're attached to the walls, askew, in seemingly random places. However you interpret the symbolism of the suitcases - I see them as representative of the characters' journeys, with their chaotic placement signifying a lack of control when dealing with the consequences of their actions - Tapscott's set is fascinating, and matches the fantasy elements of Kushner's story.
The design highlights, however, are the Angel's wings, which were designed by performer Sara Wegener for her own character - a heavenly visitor who decrees Prior a prophet. Instead of the usual white feathers, Wegener has built a contraption of paper, wood pieces, cardboard, and junk shaped into the silhouette of angel wings in a tucked position (as they would be at rest on an angel's back). When Wegener portrays this being, she moves her arms outward, pulling strings that, in turn, unfold the wings into an outstretched position. The effect is marvelous, both for being unexpected and for the large scale of the stunning wings themselves, which magnify Wegener's already-authoritative performance.
In terms of individual performances, however, nowhere is the improvement over Millennium Approaches more evident than in Kaitlin Ross' turn as Harper, Joe's pill-popping, suicidal, delusional wife. Previously, Ross' character was oppressively sad and little more. Her Harper in Perestroika, however, has nuance and interest; she's funny at times and passionate always. She still has her depressive moments, but they're layered with pleas for pity or even a soft defiance, especially when Nancy Teerlinck's doting mother-in-law Hannah attempts to get Harper back on her feet. I admired and cared about this Harper, celebrating her little victories along with her, such as her hopeful conversation with Prior at the Mormon Visitors Center where Harper imagines the wax figures talking to her. Ross never quite nails the characterization of someone with mental and emotional issues, but is dynamic enough that I didn't mind suspending my disbelief.
For their parts, Curtiss' Joe, Natarelli's Prior, Pat Flaherty's Roy Cohn, Jordan McGinnis' Belize, and Teerlinck's three characterizations - Hannah, Ray's doctor Henry, and Ray's tormenting ghost Ethel Rosenberg - remain as noteworthy in Angels in America's second half as they were in its first. (Here, Kushner allows Hannah and Roy sympathetic moments within their otherwise cold characters, and Teerlinck and Flaherty effectively elicit merciful concern - Hannah for supporting her daughter-in-law in her need, and Roy for suffering as no one should.) And taken as a whole, the cast and crew of Perestroika left me wishing I could go back and see Millenium Approaches again, this time in the style and tone of this performance.
Angels in America: Perestroika runs at the District Theatre (1623 Second Avenue, Rock Island) through February 8, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)2350-1654 or visiting DistrictTheatre.com.