Arts » Performing Arts

Broken wings

UM's Angels struggles to find a higher power



Warning: The play does not end.

That's not just a way to say the University of Montana's production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America is a really long play (it is), it's to say that it's only the first section of a longer piece. Also, the second half of the full title, Part One: Millennium Approaches, is not a sort of semi-clever joke like Mel Brooks' History of the World: Part 1. There really is a part two to Kushner's play, you just won't see it this time, which is probably for the best. With both parts combined the full story runs seven hours—about the length of the first season of "Breaking Bad."

In many ways Angels in America resembles 21st century American TV drama, whose current format may owe a debt to the 1993 play. Angels is a highly episodic blend of witty, verbose and emotional dialogue, with a plot that weaves between contemporary reality and hallucination.

The play is set in mid-1980s New York and entwines stories from members of the working class homosexual community with characters embroiled in the big business and politics of the Reaganomics right. Much of the story is specific to its time, but its message speaks to an America still waiting in the wings.

I don't know about you, but to me the 1980s feels like a lifetime ago. What a weird decade it was. It makes sense to set a prophetic story there. There's something liminal about the decade: a disjointed slice of time that represents the starkest divisions between the 20th and 21st centuries. As the '80s died, it ushered in the Internet, an end to the Cold War, the personal computing explosion and many more dramatic steps toward globalization. I was just a kid at the time, but I remember a few things about the decade: New York was dangerous, homosexuals were considered freaks and AIDS would definitely kill you.

The world has changed so much that the University of Montana's production of Angels in America feels like a story struggling for relevance, and it doesn't help that so much of the dialogue is intellectually top heavy. Hardly a moment goes by without some character waxing poetic or stepping on their wee soapbox to make a commentary or illustrate their point with a ready anecdote or cultural reference. By the end of it I was dying for a lack of profundity, for someone to express anything but a strong opinion.

UM’s Angels in America stars Sam Williamson, left, and Trevor Pressler. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • UM’s Angels in America stars Sam Williamson, left, and Trevor Pressler.

Don't get me wrong, the play is far more than intellectual exercise, and manages a broad range of emotional content. Hearts break and minds melt down all over the stage. Many of the lines penetrate brutally. But most of the time the dialogue borders on oppressive, and moments when actors should have completely lost it seem constrained by the words they're saying. We get a few mentions of the biblical story of Jacob, who wrestled an angel and refused to let go. This production could have used more struggle, more clutching, clinging, vein-popping desperation. Instead, it feels too safely played, too tightly controlled, too unsure of the dangers involved in ferociously grappling for those earth-shattering notes.

There's nothing easy about maintaining momentum through a three-hour production. Everyone in the cast embodies their characters with startling intensity and grace. Reggie Herbert's performance as Roy is a particular bright light on the stage, masterfully juggling his hellish inner conflict with his flippant materialism. The tug-of-war chemistry between veteran actors Colton Swibold, as Joe, and Sam Williamson, as Louis, demonstrates a stirring display of character acting. The backbreaking work of slow descent into sickness and madness, performed by Trevor Pressler, as Prior, and Alyssa Bosch, as Harper, provides emotion in a show that too often threatens to drag.

As a piece of history, Angels in America is high-grade theater. The production's power comes in the moments that force entanglement, revealing the long road America still walks toward unity in diversity. Magic crackles when Harper shares a cross-cultural cross-hallucination with cross-dressing Prior. Director John Kenneth DeBoer's effects in the scene are striking. The dauntingly high set, operatic audio and subtle tremor of light and smoke creates a mood of alienation. On stage, voices howl in vain their desperate hope that the nation has the capacity to embody all kinds of contradictory beliefs and behaviors at once. We are hundreds of countries in a single geography. A rabbi cries: "You do not live in America! No such place exists," and I can't help but believe him.

Angels in America is dark during the holiday week, but continues at the Montana Theater in UM's PARTV Center Sun., Dec. 1, at 3 PM with a World AIDS Day talkback, and Tue., Dec. 3, through Sat., Dec. 7, at 7:30 PM nightly.

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