Saturday, March 25, 2017

Angels in America at the Arts Club's Stanley Theatre

Among the many ideas being explored in Tony Kushner's epic play Angels in America is a dialectics of scale. On the one hand there are, as Louis says to Belize late in the first part of the play, Millennium Approaches, monolithic concepts like freedom and democracy, even the "idea of America" itself, that seem so huge and abstract as to be unimaginable--except when they are organized into specific structures, like government and religion, that bear down upon and circumscribe our daily lives. And then there's the "small problem" of living those lives in the face of such monoliths: the intimate acts of care or betrayal, obligation or disconnection, that one performs with or on those closest to you.

I was put in mind of this framework by the Arts Club's current production of Millennium, which I saw in preview last night at the Stanley Theatre on Granville Street. Directed by the Electric Company's Kim Collier, the production is dominated by Ken MacKenzie's monolithic set design, a giant faux-marble pedimented structure with steps ascending upstage that puts one in mind of the facade of a courthouse (where Louis and Joe both work), or the Lincoln Memorial, or any of those other giant mausoleum-like structures that Harper suggests dominates the architecture of Washington, DC. The set is so overwhelming that no matter how inventively Collier distributes her actors about it, or through what myriad portals within it they (and their furniture) appear and disappear, the performers inevitably look puny on stage (even from where I was sitting in the sixth row of the centre orchestra section). Perhaps this is the point, with the neo-classicism of American colonial architecture here standing in (quite literally) for the symbolic nation-state that does not so much absorb one within its warm embrace (the US being "a melting pit where nothing has melted," as Rabbi Chemelwitz tells us at the top of the show) as threaten to obliterate one with its surveilling shadow.

I would have no problem with this if Collier remembered, dialectically, what the theatre--and this play especially (Kushner being a good Brechtian)--proposes as an antidote to such spectacularized separations: the proximate and material connection between bodies on stage. Instead, she embraces the scaling up of spectacle, in part by inserting a rotating chorus of figures in scenes normally featuring just one or two characters. I didn't mind this in the opening prologue by the Rabbi (Gabrielle Rose), when other members of the ensemble join Louis (Ryan Beil) and Prior (Damien Atkins) as members of Louis's extended family mourning the death of his grandmother. However, I thought the effect an unnecessary and distracting caprice in two other places: in the already split scene when Prior is being examined by the nurse Emily (Lois Anderson) and Louis is talking with Belize (Stephen Jackman-Torkoff), the rest of the company parades on stage in hospital gowns and trailing IV drips, the presumed nod to the scale and complexity of the AIDS pandemic here only managing to pull focus from Prior; and in the scene when Hannah (Rose again) is asking her friend Ella (also played by Anderson) to sell her house in Salt Lake City following her phone call with Joe (Craig Erickson), Collier mysteriously sends out a chorus of Mormon parishioners to moon for a few seconds before retreating.

Even more questionable for me was the use of live camera feeds and video projection. The conceit first appears with Mr. Lies's entrance, the physically nimble and charismatic Jackman-Torkoff entering the stage trailing a camera, which he then proceeds to train on Harper (Celine Stubel) as she chases him around the stage and declares her desire to visit Antartica to see the hole in the ozone layer. Thereafter cameras recur in all of the subsequent dream or fantasy scenes: when Prior and Harper share the "threshold of revelation"; when Prior is visited by the ghosts of his two similarly named ancestors (played by Craig Erickson and Brian Markinson); and when Ethel Rosenberg (Rose) haunts the brownstone of Roy Cohn (Markinson). I get that Collier is using technology to suggest that these scenes are taking place in another realm or medium; however, especially with the scene between Prior and Harper, each on separate beds with a mini-digital camera pointed at them, and with their respective images projected side by side on cloth panels that have descended between the pillars of the set, it felt like I was watching a Skype conversation. The whole point of these two shattered characters sharing the threshold of revelation is that we see and accept that in the theatre different temporal and spatial realms can touch and that bodies can cross over into those realms to speak certain truths to each other--and to us. I don't see the point of added technological embellishment, especially when the performances--as, in this case, by Atkins and Stubel--are already so strong. In its final use, in the scene between Roy and Ethel, I actually think the camera gets in the way of the acting, with Markinson--whose performance I was only really starting to warm to--and Rose--who doesn't really get a chance to establish a definitive take on her character--often struggling to make sure they stay in the frame. (Interestingly, Beil, who doesn't have to operate or appear before a camera, ends up giving the finest performance, and Erickson's Joe is also very compelling.)

Indeed, in terms of its embrace of scale and technological spectacle, this production bears an interesting contrast to the excellent and very low-tech staging of Millennium at Studio 58 last fall (which I reviewed here). I realize that the Stanley as venue in some senses calls for a scaled up and more spectacular production, complete with the full-on Spielbergian descent of the Angel at the end. That said, bigger isn't always better.


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