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theatre reviews

A M B U S H  M A G  2 0 0 0   -   V O L U M E  1 5   -   I S S U E  1

Trodding the Boards.GIF


Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches -- A Gay Fantasia on National Themes -- the three and one-half hour first half of Louisianian Tony Kushner's multi-award-winning epic drama has finally made it to New Orleans under the auspices of Matt Borel, Bruce Condie and the Dog and Pony Theatre Company at the Contemporary Arts Center. The play itself is a certified, deified masterpiece -- a Pulitzer prize and a Tony for each of the two parts -- this production, however, is less than spectacular and the play itself is fast becoming dated.

Its title says it all. This is agitprop theatre at its most heated. Mr. Kushner is condemning the hypocrisy of the Reagan administration, i.e., Republicans in the mid-80's, for the cavalier approach they took to the scourge of AIDS as it savaged the gay community with no relief in sight. He is condemning their rationalization of AIDS as a (Christian) scourge from God -- just punishment for living in sin as a despised, hated and reviled homosexual.

So for national themes we have not only the Reagan administration and its blase policies toward this epidimic, but also race relations, environmental policies that permit the destruction of the ozone layer and, of course, religion, in this case, Judaism vs. Christianity with the Church of the Latter Day Saints, Mormonism, standing in for Christianity. With Clinton now in the White House refuting one character's claim that the Republicans now have the White House locked up into the 21st century and Janet Reno replacing the feckless Ed Meese the diabolical inferences to America being under the control of the Philistines no longer engender a feeling of urgency, anger and revulsion in enlightened, social-minded liberals they once did, which gave this most unique play a white-hot immediacy that has since cooled down somewhat. This, and the recent introduction of protease inhibitors, help to dampen the outrage one used to harbor toward our elected officials.

Since this is only part one of two parts (there is no guarantee that we'll ever see Part Two, even though a reading of it by this company is scheduled Jan. 18 at l pm), it is, by definition, the expositionary part which introduces us to the various characters who comprise the three major plots to the story.

Plot no. 1: Prior Walter (Russell Hodgkinson), a flamboyant, 30something ex-drag queen discovers he has AIDS and tells his Jewish lover, Louis (Gavin Mahlie) who is stereotypically ridden with (Jewish) guilt and a sudden loss of sexual and mental security.

Plot no. 2: Joe Pitt (Michael Arata) a bored, Mormon law clerk and his valium-addicted wife, Harper (Kathy Randels) have come to the end of their relationship when Joe is offered a cushy job in Washington with the Justice department through Roy Cohn (Mark McLaughlin).

Plot no. 3: Cohn, a power-obsessed vulgarian, discovers he also has AIDS but he vehemently denies it and his latent homosexuality, preferring to call it cancer, even as he tries to, and possibly does, bed conflicted Joe Pitt.

As Louis grows more and more desperate for a solution to the progressive demands his dying lover Prior makes on him, he tries to get himself inflicted at the hands of a street hustler. The progressive deterioration of Prior leads to his hallucinating -- he begins to hear a voice which is angelic and beautiful to him -- like cellos, he says. The sound grows. He meets his ancestors, who died of other plagues in history and finally an angel appears. Millennium approaches. Did he die? What happened to Cohn, Louis, or Harper? We'll have to wait for Part 2 to find out.

Constructed for a cast of eight playing 21 roles, some specified by the playwright to be cast against gender, director John Grimsley has cast some of New Orleans finest thespians in his Quixotic quest for perfection. The above-mentioned principals are all excellent in their various major and secondary roles. Gavin Mahlie, especially shines as the glib, ultra-liberal Louis, at one point almost stopping the show with a non-stop diatribe against American race relations, and, as his lover Prior Walter, Mr. Hodgkinson is properly emaciated and completely natural in his slow spiral into the frightening abyss of AIDS.

Mark McLaughlin as the over-the-top Cohn, while turning in another of his competent, professional performances does not convince as a dying AIDS-ridden Jew. They are abetted by Kenneth C. Raphael as the flamboyant black queen, Belize, Francine Segal, the token Jew, who plays an old Rabbi, a mustache-ripping doctor and Ethel Rosenberg, who appears in one of Cohn's hallucinations (Cohn had been instrumental in her execution as a Communist), and Joe Pitt's Mormon Mom from Utah who gets lost in the Bronx, and Barbara Tasker who plays a nurse, a Bronx bag lady, Sister Stella and is the Angel whose appearance to Prior Walter ends the play.

It is this appearance, and other technical snafus that give this play its tentative, not-quite congealed feeling. Technically this production is wanting.

It is most evident in Roy Cohn's first office scene, meant to illustrate the rough, gruff totally controlled quality of this character who is out to impress the young Joe Pitt with his telephone virtuosity. Mark McLaughlin practically breaks his index finger punching a stoically silent phone. The rings that are supposed to be punctuating the dialogue are missing and the scene falls flat with Mr. McLaughlin perspiring profusely.

The non-theatrical elements of the space called the MacMoRan Theatre at the CAC also do much to undermine Mr. Grimsley's design for his staging: set-pieces, all mounted on super-quiet castors, are moved on and off in full view of the audience even as a scene is still playing -- we bounce from stage right to stage left -- a two ring circus. The lighting, also by Mr. Grimsley, is uneven in the extreme. There is precious little of Mr. Kushner's "all-enveloping" sounds or music and voices and, especially, the sounds of flapping wings that is supposed to grow more and more ominous as the denouement approaches. All sounds here are contributed by the overworked actors so that the final scene, wherein the angel is supposed to crash through the ceiling literally(impossible in this space) is anticlimactic in the most elemental way. After this theatrical Gotterdamerung, the fevered, dying Prior's pricelessly funny line, "So Steven Spielberg" is supposed to evince a cathartic comic relief. We get only relief this journey into liberal angst, circa 1986, has finally ended.

A recent trip to an unlikely venue, Rene Broussard's Zeitgeist Theatre on Magazine St. -- a storefront masquerading as an alternative movie screening room cum "theatre" with the addition of several coffee can spotlights -- proved to house a most delightful golden nugget of theatrical art in the form of an extended monologue by performance artist David Bateman from Peterborough, Ontario Canada, called Salad Days.

Salad Days is a clearly constructed one act play for one flamboyant, Charles Buschesque actor. Taking a cue from Willy Russell's Shirley Valentine, Mr. Bateman assumes the role of a 37 year old gay man who has spent his life as the kept lover, i.e., the wife, of a wealthy businessman 28 years his senior, his "sugar daddy."

Set in a kitchen, a flamboyantly gowned Mr. Bateman prepares one of the 16 salads he seemingly plans to serve at tomorrow's birthday party for his husband.

We assume that only salads are being served from the message on the front of his/her apron: "mainly because of the MEAT."

As Mr. Bateman recounts his affluent life in Cabbagetown, a small residential area on the east side of Toronto's downtown section -- the gay ghetto of Toronto -- he maliciously chops, shreds, dices and minces a bunch of carrots and a head of lettuce, all the while inebriating himself with glass after glass of white wine.

He even refers directly to Shirley Valentine and quotes the clitoris joke from that wonderful play.

But, whereas Shirley is tone deaf, David has no trouble singing extended, a capella versions of Canadian country, Anne Murray ditties, Elvis struts and a hilarious "Harper Valley PTA." And, whereas Shirley is an intellectual naif, David is dripping with erudition. This street hustler has spent the last twenty years not only cleaning and cooking, but reading and learning as well, so that now, at the height of his physical and mental development, he can blithely spin off a Tennessee Williams-like speech using polysyllabic words and a feather boa in a Vivien Liegh riff that is absolutely breathtaking in its screwball logic.

Just when the mincing, camping, singing and chopping start to grow tiresome, David hits us between the eyes with his play's denouement: his lover is in the hospital not because of AIDS, but due to a heart attack; hence, only salads from now on, but "mainly because of the MEAT."

Mr. Bateman's play could stand a bit of trimming -- there is too much reiteration of information already divulged, one or two of the musical renditions run on more than is necessary but it is a solid, unique, fresh creation nonetheless and, coupled with Mr. Bateman's assured artistry, it is pure theatrical gold with a cogent message for both the gay and straight community: in everything you do, be moderate and don't eat meat.

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