(Cover Photo: Eddie Shields as "Prior," Helen Hy-Yuen Swanson as the "Angel" and Maurice Emmanuel Parent as "Belize" in a scene from
Tony Kushner's "ANGELS IN AMERICA: PART 2 - PERESTROIKA," now playing at Central Square Theater in Cambridge, MA. until October 8, 2023. Co-produced with Bedlam. Photo Credit Nile Scott Studios)
By Kevin T. Baldwin
“But…I think we all what what that’s like. Nowadays. No connections. No responsibilities. All of us…falling through the cracks that separate what we owe to ourselves and…and what we owe to love."
- ("Louis") - Tony Kushner
Written by Tony Kushner
Directed by Eric Tucker
Co-produced with Bedlam
Cast Includes: Barlow Adamson* as “Roy Cohn”; Kari Buckley* as “Harper Pitt”; Zach Fike Hodges* as “Louis Ironson”; Maurice Emmanuel Parent* as “Belize” & “Mr. Lies”; Alexander Platt* as “Joe Pitt”; Eddie Shields* as “Prior Walter”; Helen Hy-Yuen Swanson as “The Angel”; Debra Wise* as “Hannah Pitt” & “Ethel”.
Additional Creative Team:
Deb Sivigny - Scenic Designer; Daniele Tyler Mathews - Costume Designer; John R. Malinowski - Lighting Designer; Kai Bohlman - Sound Designer; Karissa Roberts - Props Artisan (Part 1); Julia Wonkka - Properties Designer; Angie Jepson - Fight/Intimacy Director (Part 1); Kayleigh Kane - Intimacy Director; Lee Nishri-Howitt - Voice and Text Director; Ryan Rappaport – Dramaturg; Joe Juknievich - Assistant Director; Hilary Rappaport - Assistant to the Director; Ana Muñoz° - Stage Manager; Andrea McAdam - Assistant Stage Manager.
* Member of Actors’ Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States
** Represented by United Scenic Artists, Local USA 829 of the IATSE
° Stage Directors and Choreographers Society
Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02139
September 7, 2023 through October 8, 2023
(Contact Box Office for Exact Times)
Wednesday and Thursday evenings will begin at 7pm.
Friday and Saturday evenings will begin at 7:30pm.
Saturday matinees will begin at 1pm and Sunday matinees will begin at 2pm.
COVID 19 PROTOCOLS
Contact Venue for Most Updated COVID-19 Safety Protocols and Information.
Central Square Theater must have angels working with them as they have staged a simply heavenly production of "ANGELS IN AMERICA: A GAY FANTASIA ON NATIONAL THEMES/PART 2: PERESTROIKA" and these angels must be seen to believed.
To be clear, the story itself isn't perfect as the production gets messy, chaotic with debris flying and falling everywhere in a four hour period.
However, in between all that chaos and messiness, there is a powerful story beautifully told by the actors.
The stage is bare and later, so are some of the actors. There is explicit depiction of sexuality and occasional nudity involved which, for some, could be a huge selling point. Yet the nudity involved is done strictly with purpose and never gratuitous.
"ANGELS IN AMERICA: A GAY FANTASIA ON NATIONAL THEMES" is an obsessive two-part odyssey courtesy of playwright Tony Kushner.
The work won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Tony Award for Best Play, and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play.
The play is a complex, often metaphorical, and at times symbolic examination of AIDS and homosexuality in America in the 1980s.
The characters are a mix of supernatural beings (angels) or deceased persons (ghosts).
This review specifically focuses on the latter of the two plays, “PERESTROIKA” which stands apart from the first play.
How can this be, might you ask?
Well, in sci-fi terms, it would be similar to how the first “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” stands apart from the subsequent trilogy of “Star Trek” movies. One need not to have watched “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” in order to enjoy “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” (but it sure helps).
“PERESTROIKA” is set in New York but, in true metaphoric form, begins, curiously enough, in the former Soviet Union, with a speech in Moscow, given by a crusty old Bolshevik, literally the beginning of what would be known worldwide as “PERESTROIKA” - the policy or practice of restructuring or reforming an economic and political system.
Not to dwell too much on it but, basically, “PERESTROIKA” originated from Leonid Brezhnev in 1979 and was actively promoted by Mikhail Gorbachev. The Bolshevik speaking out against the progressive reforms proposed by Gorbachev, offers the stability of non-action in opposition to the frightening instability of “progress.”
Immediately following the speech emerges Louis (Zach Fike Hodges) who has 'hooked up' with married Mormon Joe (Alexander Platt).
Joe is not only married and a Mormon, he is a conservative Republican attorney working in a federal appeals court for one of the most vile, repugnant humans ever to walk the planet, the very real human…and really inhumane… Roy Cohn (Barlow Adamson).
Zach Fike Hodges perfectly conveys Louis as both sensitive and neurotic. Louis is only getting with Joe in effort to work through his overwhelming guilt of having abandoned his lover, Prior (Eddie Shields), after Prior has contracted AIDS.
Later, Louis’ singular guilt would manifest itself, widening to include all those impacted by AIDS and ignored by a callous and obtusely fearful society. One of the more inegnious allegorical plot elements found in the Kushner story.
Meanwhile, but in parallel, a shaken Prior (Eddie Shields) relates his "sexual" encounter with an Angel of God (aka one of the “ANGELS OF AMERICA” as played by Helen Hy-Yuen Swanson) to his friend, Belize (Maurice Emmanuel Parent).
Swanson is simply “divine” as the imposing ominous Angel who has come from Heaven to indoctrinate Prior, executing the more eccentric aspect to the Kushner story which is, apparently, how the Angel has come seeking out a "prophet" who will help Heaven curtail the evolutionary impulse of humans. In other words, “PERESTROIKA.”
The Angel tells Prior that he is now that prophet.
Prior, convinced such an idea preposterous, attempts to reject the notion of becoming a prophet of any kind, opting to, instead, you know...survive.
Later, this, too, manifests itself into becoming something more on a grander scale, moving from a dying individual to an American society seen as choosing apathy over compassion, stagnation over evolution and indolence over endurance when it, of course, should be the opposite.
(Photo: Eddie Shields as "Prior," Helen Hy-Yuen Swanson as the "Angel" and Maurice Emmanuel Parent as "Belize" in a scene from Tony Kushner's "ANGELS IN AMERICA: PART 2 - PERESTROIKA," now playing at Central Square Theater in Cambridge, MA. until October 8, 2023. Co-produced with Bedlam. Photo Credit Nile Scott Studios)
Shields as Prior gives an unforgettable performance, perhaps the most heartfelt, gut wrenching portrayal of a character as seen thus far this season.
Prior is not perfect – he is flawed, but is also sensitive, decent with a strong sense of morality. He may be critically ill, as his affliction renders him progressively weak, but he manages to overcome. Again, a metaphor for choosing evolution over stagnation, life over death.
As one watches the fine performance of Alexander Platt as Joe, it feels almost heartbreaking as Joe first embraces his heretofore dormant homosexuality, which comes with Joe’s inner struggle with the guilt of abandoning his wife, Harper (Kari Buckley), for Louis.
All the while Louis is overcome by his own guilt in abandoning Prior. As such, Joe descends into an emotional abyss of his own making.
Meanwhile, Harper (in a brilliant, almost “Quixotic” performance by Buckley), becomes the embodiment of an emotional rollercoaster, with great hallucinating highs (coming chemically induced), she feels trapped by her failing marriage.
Through a hallucinatory “chance encounter” with Prior, she learns to accept the death of her marriage and begins to think of Harper over all else.
Harper must also contend with Joe’s Mormon mother, Hannah (Debra Wise), who has moved from Utah to New York after Joe’s homosexuality is revealed.
Wise gives a resolute performance as Hannah, who first comes across as a two-dimensional conservative bigot, but slowly transitions into a more evolved, compassionate companion after she accidentally encounters Prior as his condition deteriorates.
(Photo: Eddie Shields as "Prior," with Barlow Adamson as "Roy Cohn" in a scene from Tony Kushner's "ANGELS IN AMERICA: PART 2 - PERESTROIKA," now playing at Central Square Theater in Cambridge, MA. until October 8, 2023. Co-produced with Bedlam. Photo Credit Nile Scott Studios)
Which brings us to the villain of this...or any...story, Roy Cohn.
You can Wiki the famous New York lawyer and powerbroker for yourself but, in a snapshot:
With one or two notable competitors, before the 2016 election, there was probably nobody more reviled in modern American history than the actual Roy Cohn.
As depicted in Kushner’s “PERESTROIKA,” Cohn is seen as unethical, rancorous and abhorrent. Cohn is also seen here as a closeted homosexual who has not only disenfranchised anyone openly homosexual, he both prosecuted and persecuted them, all in the pursuit of power.
Seemingly born without a conscience, Cohn and Senator Joseph McCarthy were responsible for the paranoid-driven “Red Scare” in 1950s America, targeting government officials and cultural figures.
However, this method of using unsubstantiated innuendo as a method of persecution was used not just for suspected Communist sympathizers, but also for other “enemies of the state” – alleged homosexuals.
Together, McCarthy and Cohn were responsible for ousting “known" homosexuals from government positions (even if they weren't homosexual), forcing many others into silence in fear that such tactics may be used against them, as well, regardless of their actual sexuality.
In an almost “O Henry”-level of Karmatic justice, Cohn nears the end of his life as a result of AIDS, and is haunted by the appearance of Ethel Rosenberg (also played by Debra Wise), one of the many Cohn prosecuted which, in the “real life” Ethel’s case, culminated in her execution.
(Photo: Kari Buckley as "Harper," Alexander Platt as "Joe" and Zach Fike Hodges as "Louis" in a scene from Tony Kushner's "ANGELS IN AMERICA: PART 2 - PERESTROIKA," now playing at Central Square Theater in Cambridge, MA. until October 8, 2023. Co-produced with Bedlam. Photo Credit Nile Scott Studios)
What Cohn represents in Kushner's parable, Maurice Emmanuel Parent shows us that Prior’s flamboyant friend Belize, a Black registered nurse and former drag queen, is the exact opposite.
As Belize, Parent shows applied nuance with the character having a heart, a conscience, a true sense of community, a sense of selflessness and totally capable doing what needs to be done to help a friend. A wonderfully measured performance.
Belize is forceful yet compassionate, imposing yet amicable - magnificently symbolizing any of the selfless protectors of marginalized groups.
The above would all be concepts foreign to the malevolent Cohn, at least as depicted here (and if history is to be believed).
However, Belize is forced into becoming Cohn's caregiver.
(Photo: Kari Buckley, Helen Hy-Yuen Swanson, Alexander Platt, Maurice Emmanuel Parent and Barlow Adamson in Tony Kushner's "ANGELS IN AMERICA: PART 2 - PERESTROIKA," now playing at Central Square Theater in Cambridge, MA. until October 8, 2023. Co-produced with Bedlam. Photo Credit Nile Scott Studios)
Belize discovers that Cohn, in true rodent fashion, has managed to use his political connections to “squirrel away” his own, private supply of the then-experimental drug AZT, as he worked to prohibit others from much needed access to the drug.
Yet, even as Cohn faces his own mortality, Ethel helps “guide” Louis as he recites the Kaddish over Cohn to indicate her forgiveness. Whether or not the actual Ethel Rosenberg would have done such a thing is left to the speculation by angels.
Kushner's third act is a bit problematic, be it pretentious in nature or pure genius, depending on each person's perspective.
However, it feels that much of the more allegorical, hallucinatory elements in the final act falls apart. Some aspects are either overwritten or not really required.
Unless one views the material as like reading a book you can't put down (and there is an argument for that), the run time of four hours, even if somehow connecting back to the events of "PART 1," simply does not seem warranted.
What might have served the material better would have been to eliminate some of the play's extraneous, exploratory, more "ethereal" moments and, instead, simply place any of the actual plotline "tie-ups" at the end of the second act.
Again, this production is very messy but much of it is deliberate. Life is also very messy. Actors are literally stepping over debris, constantly trying to keep from tripping, not always succeeding.
There are no sets, just a few set pieces and props used throughout. There is also some fine application of meticulously timed special effects.
Ultimately, thanks to the insightful direction of Eric Tucker, the strength of “PERESTROIKA” comes directly from the performances which are all exciting, engaging and indomitably sympathetic.
"ANGELS IN AMERICA: PART 2 - PERESTROIKA," continues at Central Square Theater in Cambridge until October 8th.
Approximately four hours with two intermissions
Kevin T. Baldwin is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA)
ABOUT THE SHOW
The Great Work Continues!
"PERESTROIKA" (part 2 of Tony Kushner’s award-winning epic) delivers on the promise of "MILLENNIUM APPROACHES."
In a stunning resolution "PERESTROIKA" is playful and furious, deeply spiritual and hugely comic.
With a limited number of performances of "PART 1: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES" you can catch the entire extravagant epic on select Saturdays and Sundays.
A brilliant and poignant exploration of human connection, this epic tale will be brought to vivid life through Bedlam Artistic Director Eric Tucker’s signature, pared-down approach.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Best Play, "ANGELS IN AMERICA" is still fiercely hopeful today.
"ANGELS IN AMERICA" includes explicit sexual situations, nudity and adult language.
ABOUT CENTRAL SQUARE THEATER
Central Square Theater (CST), is dedicated to the exploration of social justice, science and sexual politics through theater; catalyzing the dynamic synergies sparked by the collaboration between The Nora and Underground Railway. Through award-winning productions, the Catalyst Collaborative@ MIT Science Theater Initiative, and youth development programming – CST creates theater where points of view are heard, perspective shifts, and change can happen.
450 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA. 02139