Theater Review: ANGELS IN AMERICA: PART ONE (Bedlam and Central Square Theater in Cambridge, MA)

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by Lynne Weiss on May 6, 2023

in Theater-Boston,Theater-Regional


Central Square Theater’s collaboration with Bedlam of Tony Kushner’s still-relevant masterpiece Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is thrilling. Despite the three-hour run time, the intensity of Part One: Millennium Approaches is inspiring and moving.

The acting is terrific. Eddie Shields takes us on a powerful emotional ride and is an absolute standout as Prior Walter, the dying WASP-y lover of decidedly Jewish political progressive Louis Ironson. Zach Fike Hodges plays Louis with every ounce of neurotic ambivalence the role calls for and we can’t help but forgive him for his shortcomings. Maurice Emmanuel Parent (possibly the busiest person in Boston theater) is fantastic as both Belize — the Haitian-American nurse who challenges Louis on his racism — and the provocatively costumed Mr. Lies, who appears in Harper Pitt’s hallucinations in glittery codpiece and bare buttocks. Kari Buckley breaks our hearts in her anguished portrayal of Harper, the young wife who misses the love of her husband, Joe Pitt, played by Nael Nacer, who delivers Joe’s confusion and principled earnestness perfectly, and then delights us as the medieval plague-era ancestor of Prior. The despicable Roy Cohn is convincingly portrayed in all his slimy ruthlessness by Steven Barkhimer (Erik Tucker alternates); the versatile Debra Wise is by turns a rabbi, Joe’s mother Hannah Pitt, and Ethel Rosenberg, risen from the dead to take Cohn to task. Finally, we have Helen Hy-Yuen Swanson as the ethereal and sweet-voiced Angel and a white-clad nurse.

Bedlam director Eric Tucker’s stripped-down version in an intimate setting places the focus of the experience on Kushner’s masterful writing and the company’s superlative acting. The backdrop of Deb Sivigny‘s set consists of the type of fabric dividers found in medical settings. Karissa Roberts‘s props are wheeled office chairs and flashlights. Daniele Tyler Mathews‘ timeless costumes include white sheets, which the design team uses together seamlessly. The sheets appear at various times as shrouds, beds, a Gloria Swanson gown, and angelic robes, and are used to have actors disappear when they aren’t in a scene. The choreography of the chairs and John R. Malinowski‘s lighting — including lanterns — focuses attention on specific action.

This is a much-needed production in our era of increasing anti-Semitism and anti-queer discrimination and violence. The program states that the FBI reported a 20% increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes from 2022 to 2023. At the same time, queer and trans people are under attack around the world. In the United States specifically, over 417 bills had been introduced as of April 2023 to either prevent access to gender affirming care, or ban the celebration of queer identities, or limit discussion of queer history or concerns in schools.

Theater is one way to challenge this rising tide of hate, a tide that ultimately affects us all, queer or straight. Quoting again from the program, “We must find solace in community and joy in creating art that invites us to celebrate and reflect on our history.” The good news? In September, 2023, Central Square will stage Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika, including some back-to-back performances of both parts, allowing audiences a seamless experience of this monumental and important work.

photos by Nile Scott Studios

Angels in America, A Gay Fantasia on National Themes
Part One: Millennium Approaches
Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge
a co-production with Bedlam
Wed and Thurs at 7; Fri at 7:30; Sat at 1 and 7:30; Sun at 2
ends on May 21, 2023 EXTENDED through May 28, 2023
for tickets, call 617.576.9278 or visit CST

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