While most of the UC Irvine community enjoyed themselves at the Bren this past Saturday, just across the street at the Robert Cohen Theatre “Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches” premiered at UCI. The dramedy opened to a full house in the intimate Cohen Theatre, almost all 80 seats filled for the 3-hour performance of Tony Kushner’s award winning Drama.
The play is set in 1985 and uses historical events such as the outbreak of AIDS as a point from which the characters struggle with who they are and what it means to live in an age where nothing is fair and identity is clouded. It focuses on five main characters, two of whom have AIDS, and all of whom are deeply disturbed by the state of their lives.
Prior Walter (Matt Koenig) is a gay man recently diagnosed with AIDS whose symptoms are quickly spreading throughout his body, and who suffers visits from spiritual ancestors and a voice promising a miracle. His partner and lover, Louis Ironson (Josh Odsess-Rubin) is a neurotic Jew torn between his own happiness and the guilt he feels for wanting to leave Prior. The plot is thickened with the addition of another couple, Joe and Harper Pitt (Adam Schroeder and Bri McWhorter respectively) who are wrestling with the realization that their marriage is extremely unhealthy for the two of them and complicates their problems with sexuality, morality and sanity. Last, the historical character of Roy Cohn (Jacob Dresch) is a relentless and savage politician who begins to feel the backlash of his underhanded methods in both his personal and professional lives. Together, these five characters deal with an immense array of sociopolitical and humanistic quandaries, realizing things about themselves and each other that shake them to the core.
The UCI Drama Department utilizes a fine cast of actors and actresses and a fantastic performance space to recreate this Pulitzer Prize winning Drama. I was constantly drawn to the performances of McWhorter and Dresch who demanded attention with their magnetically distressed characters, propelling each scene forward with their unabashed contradictions and hypocrisy.
Koenig brought the sarcastic and brutally honest character of Prior to life, making the audience flinch every time they saw a new lesion on his body, while Odsess-Rubin played a wonderfully neurotic and guilty Louis who you couldn’t decide to pity or yell at, and Schroeder made Joe Pitt so innocently naïve that you almost wanted to cheer when he came to terms with his homosexuality. Then of course were the indispensable and captivating performances of the supporting cast who I constantly looked forward to seeing because of the energy and vitality their characters brought to a play about the physically and morally dying.
However, there were moments in the performance which detracted from the overall viewing experience. First off, due to the close proximity of the stage, there were moments where the emotions the actors portrayed did not feel genuine – sometimes it was tears, other times a scream or outburst of anger, and every so often, the display of pain.
Yet luckily, these moments were few and that to me was not the worst issue. Instead, probably the most glaring and innate problem of all is that the play is merely part one of a two-part work, and thus the audience cannot get the whole story of these characters in this one performance. Just as the play is gaining momentum and traction, it ends and leaves you feeling unfulfilled and wanting to know how their lives end up. This doesn’t necessarily leave a bad taste in your mouth, but it leaves the impression that you’ve just finished a nice dinner and want some dessert, but have to go home because the restaurant is closing.
Yet all in all, the UCI Drama Department’s production of “Angels in America” was a solid dark play presenting themes such as social leprosy, guilt versus forgiveness, justice as law and love, and madness in both healthy and unhealthy individuals, to engage the audience. The actors did a great job bringing these characters to life and from a production standpoint, the design team did a nearly perfect job, setting the stage for play. The earnest and bare portrayals of these disturbed characters turned this play from merely social commentary into something much more enjoyable, turning a mere collection of voices into a physical performance much like the titular angel.
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