Stunning “Angels In America” Puts Stray Dog Theatre In Another Dimension

As if their two most recent triumphs weren’t enough- the musicals “Tommy” and “Urinetown,” Stray Dog Theatre has entered another realm of quality theatre in our town with their production of “Angels In America.” True, we’ve only seen the first part, but it set such a high standard that I can’t imagine the second part being anything less than outstanding.

Aaron Paul Gotzon and Ben Watts in Stray Dog Theatre's "Angels In America."

Such an ambitious undertaking. We haven’t seen both parts presented since the Fox and the Rep did a co-production several years ago. Stray Dog is at a point in their existence where it made perfect sense. They have a wonderful community of actors, designers and tech people and Artistic Director and show director, Gary F. Bell, has the talent and commitment to tackle such an extraordinary project. The result is a stunning piece of theatre unlike anything we’ve seen on local stages in some time.

“Angels In America” is complex yet simple. It covers the AIDS epidemic when the epidemic first became known by that frightening name. Personally, I lost many friends in the ’70’s who seemed to get pneumonia or some other illness and suddenly died. What was going on? This play centers on the cause and effect of the disease and weaves an intriguing tale around several people who are affected by it. Part one- “Millennium Approaches” is a stand-alone piece in many respects. We meet Louis and Prior, who are deeply affected, Joe and Harper who have other demons which eventually tie into the first couple’s story along with a variety of characters touching all of their lives. As playwright Tony Kushner wrote it, eight actors play a multitude of characters crossing gender and thought to approach this remarkable tale.

Ben Watts simply takes your breath away as the helpless victim of the disease, Prior. His life-long companion, Lou is played with a manic and different but equally helpless quality by Aaron Paul Gotzon. He decides he can’t bear the pain that Prior and he are both going through and abandons him. Meanwhile Prior is dealing with dreams that foreshadow him as a prophet and is visited by ancestors and, in the final, imposing scene, by the infamous Angel.

Joe is a Reagan Republican who plans to move up in the world but is hampered with a pill-popping and hallucinating wife. She is dealing with her own demons while straight-laced Joe tries to cope with her and his emerging feelings of homosexuality. Stephen Peirick appears strong but caves under all of the emotions haunting him. It’s a powerful performance. As his wife, Harper, Rachel Hanks simply shines. Her paranoia and hallucinations- which include Prior and a bizarre travel agent- give her a chance to show her chops as an actress and she really goes with it. She realizes the essence of existence in the marvelous hallucination scene with Prior when she discovers that they are on the “threshold of revelation.”

David Wassilak subtly commands the stage with a bravura performance as slimy lawyer, Roy Cohn. Although infected with the AIDS virus, he tells everyone he has cancer. Laura Kyro is a treat in several roles including Joe’s mother while Greg Fenner gets the most laughs of the evening as the ethereal travel agent and, most notably, as Prior’s ex-lover, Belize. Rounding out the cast is Sarajane Alverson as both an earth-bound angel of mercy and the striking prophetic Angel that visits Prior in the final, overwhelming scene that sets up Part two- “Perestroika.”

As stunning as the actors are, the technical aspects of “Angels In America” dazzle as well. The magnificent Justin Been has created a set design that features odd-shaped mixed media that includes a slab of concrete that appears to reflect the sores associated with the dreaded disease. The dry ice fog and the parting of this incredible background for the climactic scene is simply amazing. Mr. Been also designed the powerful sound design. In a short second intermission chat with director Gary Bell, he revealed that this was not a pre-packaged sound design but gathered together by Justin. What an effect it has on this production. Add to the mix the great lighting design of Tyler Duenow and Alexandra Scibetta Quigley’s costumes. With a bit of difficulty with some awkward scene changes the only fly in the ointment, “Angels In America” is simply theatre at the apex. You won’t find anything better than this.

Running on consecutive week-ends through May 18th, “Angels In America, Parts I and II,” are worth the commitment. Contact Stray Dog Theatre at http://www.straydogtheatre.org for tickets or more information.

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