Talk about starting the season with a bang.
Atlantis Productions opened its 20th year of producing theater with Tony Kushner’s seminal work, “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.”
This play, first produced on Broadway in 1993 won the Tony, Drama Desk and Pulitzer awards for best play.
Anyone alive in Ronald Reagan’s America will remember only too well the politics that surrounded the AIDS crisis, and the Reagan administration’s silence that damned tens of thousands dying of AIDS, mostly gay men and intravenous drug users. At one point, it was called “gay cancer.”
However, as much as “Angels in America” is a searing, scathing indictment of the political powers-that-be at the time, it is also, and perhaps more importantly, a story of the power of love, looming unimaginable loss, and facing the unwanted truth about oneself and living in vehement denial of it.
This new production directed by Bobby Garcia does not gloss over or trivialize any of the play’s themes. If anything, we get them all as close to our faces as they can get, and we’re all the better for it. It is smartly paced, lovingly acted and beautifully realized.
From the word go, as the curtains part on a speech by a rabbi from the Bronx to the final image of the angel’s arrival into Prior Walter’s world, it keeps going like the Energizer bunny, but never feels out of breath.
Topper Fabregas, in a star-making turn as Prior Walter, is nothing short of absolute perfection. Though the pathos of his personal situation can and does bring us to tears, it is watching the fight for his person and his relationship with Louis (Nelsito Gomez) to survive that sends us over the edge. However, in the spots of humor that pepper his portrayal, Topper is hilarious, pee-in-your-pants funny, never mind that we see the number of lesions increasing in number and his physical state steadily weakening.
Nelsito Gomez as Louis Ironson, a neurotic Jewish New Yorker, falls apart in front of our eyes one minute and delivers astute political observations the next. There’s one point in the play where he gives us, one after another, a laundry list of what’s wrong with the world, and it never feels muddied or vague. Despite the rapid-fire delivery, we totally understand where Louis and men like him are coming from.
But Louis, in Nel’s hands, isn’t just neuroses on legs, but falls apart at the thought of Prior dying, and how he deals with it breaks our hearts for both of them. There is palpable chemistry between Topper and Nel, and it is breathtaking to watch.
Arthur Acuña, playing Roy Cohn, a famous Reagan-era fixer for the Republicans, is powerful in his portrayal, as well as gives us a glimpse of the era’s political machinations and his desire for power. Cohn is also a closeted gay man dying of AIDS, but is outwardly in denial of the truth, instead giving us the early 1990s version of “fake news,” calling himself a heterosexual man who has sex with men, and isn’t dying of AIDS, but of liver cancer.
But the strongest condemnation comes from not any flesh and bone human, but the ghost of a woman he helped get executed by electric chair, Ethel Rosenberg (one of the many roles played by the legendary Cherie Gil). Speaking of the great Cherie, she plays a myriad of roles in Angels (a rabbi, a mother, a ghost, a doctor). Each portrayal is distinct, be it in the dialect or posture, but she ends up toe-to-toe with just about everyone. But it’s in her interaction with son Joe Pitt (Markki Stroem) via a telephone call that had us holding our breath, not knowing how things would go.
The best that I’ve personally seen Markki was as Tommy DeVito in Atlantis’ “Jersey Boys” some years ago, but that has now been replaced by his Joe Pitt, a closeted, religious (he’s a Mormon), married-to-a-woman gay man working as a legal clerk under Roy Cohn’s wing. Joe is conflicted, unhappy in his marriage to his wife Harper (Angeli Bayani), and always wanting for something his deep-seated religious beliefs deny.
As Harper, Angeli is a force of nature. Mentally unstable, addicted to Valium, and prone to hallucinations (one of which includes Prior Walter), it is her honesty despite all that surrounds her that grounds us in watching the sham that is her marriage to Joe. We understand some of the reasoning for her instability (when your husband tells you he doesn’t desire you sexually, kisses you only on the forehead and calls you “Buddy,” something has to be wrong somewhere), and actually hope on her behalf that she’s able to escape her own private hell.
Belize, Prior’s friend and former lover, is played by Andoy Ranay, making his first Atlantis appearance since “Dogeaters” in 2007. His Belize is so much fun as a whole, but it’s in his reactions to Louis’ rantings that have us bursting out into loud laughter.
And finally, as The Angel, Pinky Amador proved why she is considered one of our finest theater actresses working today. She speaks in tongues as Prior’s nurse. She’s a near-incoherent homeless woman warming herself over a fire barrel. And she’s one of Hannah Pitt’s friends in Salt Lake City. But it is in her appearance in the final few minutes of the show as The Angel that has us all but worshipping her.
On technical notes, the sets of lights, drawers and stairs by Faust Peneyra provide a multipurpose playground for all the characters in their various environs, be it a hospital room, a law office or the inner sanctum of an unstable mind. Lights by Jonjon Villareal illuminate without being obtrusive, and sound design by Glendfford Malimban was crazy good. Also excellent are the hair and make-up design by Johann dela Fuente, costumes by Odelon Simpao, projections by GA Fallarme, and music direction by Louise Ybañez-Javier.
The timelessness of this Tony Kushner play (and its second part, “Perestroika”) is proven not only by watching this production, but by reading and watching the news. It seems as if Mr. Kushner had a premonition, or at least some preconceived idea, of the events of the future from his early 1990s perspective. The millennium has, literally, come, but it looks like not much has changed, and the threat of the spread of AIDS in the Philippines, due in part by ignorance, denial and stupidity, is frighteningly real.
This is one of those plays to watch not just for one’s enjoyment, but to be educated and illuminated. Many of us remember what it was like in Reagan’s America, and would not ever want to return, even though in some ways, because of ignorance, denial and stupidity, we have.