PROVO — Since their debut at the Salt Lake Fringe Festival in 2015, An Other Theater Company has been producing bold, compassionate, and inclusive pieces of live entertainment that make me excited for the Utah theater scene. I was able to enjoy their latest production, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches (the first half of Tony Kushner‘s landmark play), and I am pleased to say that their standard for excellence and empathy is still raising the bar for similar companies.
Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (with its two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika) is a hallmark of theatrical achievement. It is set in 1985, smack dab in the middle of the AIDS crisis and the Reagan administration, and features real-life characters like Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg (in spirit form), as well as an ensemble of vividly real characters: a gay couple (one of whom has AIDS), a Mormon couple (one of whom is gay), a black homosexual nurse, a Mormon mother, some ancestors, a rabbi, and the titular angel. Kushner’s book explores themes of political and psychological stasis, of vulnerability in relationships, of compassion from strangers, of parenthood and parental figures, and of grief and fear and the approach of the millennium. It is a hefty piece that requires strength and grace from actors and directors, and An Other Theater Company tackled it full-force.
The direction by Kacey Spadafora was splendid in its simplicity. The company performs in an itty-bitty space in the Provo Towne Centre Mall with merely six rows of church pews set up for seating. Spadafora met this challenge head-on, incorporating dance blocks as set pieces and a creatively-designed backdrop by Madeline Ashton results in a bare-bones space that required the acting to shine. And boy, did it. Spadafora’s focus was on the humanity of the piece, and that is what he drew out of his actors: supreme vulnerability.
As Angels is an ensemble piece with a smaller cast, I would like to speak on the strengths of each actor, all of whom I thought were wonderful. My favorite character has always been Belize, so I will begin with Michael Fletcher’s performance. I adored Fletcher’s interpretation, finding his brash confidence magnetic and colorful. A scene between him and Louis (played by Noah Kershisnik) was the best in the show. The two argued politics and social conscientiousness with energy and vibrancy, so much so that I was sold on these characters as real people—people I know, even. Fletcher’s reading of one of my favorite lines in the play was beautifully spicy: “Purple? Boy, what kind of a homosexual are you, anyway? That’s not purple, Mary; that color up there is mauve.” Kershisnik as the perpetually guilty Louis played the character as a quivering loose cannon of emotion, which I thought appropriate. His diffidence when he asked an old rabbi for forgiveness for abandoning his sick boyfriend was honest and heartbreaking.
Prior Walter is a character that requires the most likability, and Trevor William Newsome was perfectly suited to the task. Not only was his Prior sweet, endearing, and lovely, but I found myself wanting to wrap him up in a bundle and take care of him. Prior Walter is a young man of thirty who is dying of AIDS, and his plight was made excruciatingly real by Newsome’s large, expressive eyes and sensitive portrayal. He also brought a lot of humor to the role, and the scenes in which Prior’s ancestors—the prior Prior Walters—appeared to him were among my favorites.
Speaking of the spectral ancestors, I must applaud Bryce Lloyd Fueston for some of the best accent work I’ve seen on a Utah stage in years. Fueston also played Joe, the Mormon husband who is coming to terms with his homosexuality due to pressure from his wife and friendship with Louis. Fueston’s Joe was sympathetic and delicate, his impuissance shining in scenes with his frustrated wife. My favorite moments of his were his interactions with the formidable and monstrous Roy Cohn, who goes from beloved mentor to reviled villain in Joe’s eyes. I completely bought Joe and Cohn (played by Joel Applegate) as mentee and mentor, and was drawn in by their dynamic.
The portrayal of Roy Cohn is a difficult one, as he was a real person and a controversial figure. The first thing I noted about Applegate’s performance was how he utilized his teeth: he seemed to bare them at his scene partners, performing intimidation and ferocity in a gorgeously animalistic way. There were two scenes of his I just loved: a scene bullying his doctor into giving him the official, on-the-record diagnosis of liver cancer as opposed to AIDS, and a scene where he reveals to Joe his role in the execution of Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg. In both these scenes, he was met with a fascinating foil: Kim Abunuwara as his doctor Henry and then Ethel Rosenberg’s spirit. I enjoyed Abunuwara in every role she portrayed, and wished most of her character Hannah Pitt’s scenes were not in the second half of the play, Angels in America: Perestroika, because I could have watched much more of her. The opening scene of the play featured Abunuwara as a rabbi with a long, powerful, and humorous soliloquy. It is a magnificently written monologue, and Abunuwara played the old Russian rabbi with consummate skill and great specificity in dialect. Another actor I will have to wait until part two to see more of was Caitlin Laurie Bell as Angel/Nurse/Homeless Woman. There was not nearly enough of her in Millennium, but her Homeless Woman was delightful.
As Harper Pitt, Hailey Nebeker was a powerhouse. Harper is a pill-popping Mormon wife of a closeted homosexual man, but she is also much, much more. Harper voices the greater part of the metaphors and grander themes of the play, and her hallucinations and ideations are so woven into the spine of the script that it is of great importance for the actor playing her to nail every single allegory with wisdom and intelligence. Nebeker was effortless in her understanding of the text and the importance of Harper’s lines, all while making her character watchable and honest. I am heavily attached to the HBO miniseries with Mary-Louise Parker’s interpretation, so I was anxious to see how a different Harper would feel. Nebeker’s portrayal surprised and delighted me, as it was vastly different from Parker’s and still absolutely superb.
As I mentioned, Angels in America: The Millennium Approaches is a full three hours but merely the first half of the play. But is it definitely worth it. These actors are gathering to perform the second half, Perestroika, as a staged reading in March, but I would dearly love to have these very same actors gather a year from now to stage the second half outright. The production is stunning and paradisiac, and given the humble space and budget, it was a worthy piece of theater that both fans of Kushner’s staggering piece and neophytes alike should see.
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