Saving Grace

Starving through the leafless wood
Trolls run scolding for their food;
And the nightingale is dumb,
And the angel will not come.

Cold, impossible, ahead
Lifts the mountain's lovely head
Whose white waterfall could bless
Travellers in their last distress.

-- from "Autumn Song," by W. H. Auden

So much depends on the Angel.

Without her, Tony Kushner's Angels in America -- a seven-hour masterwork, currently being presented in two parts at Bas Bleu Theatre in Fort Collins -- would be just a fine play. Maybe a very fine play, even a brilliant play, about the lives of two couples and one quintessentially evil historical figure, and the inextricable way in which politics, history and private life intertwine. But the Angel is there -- along with other supernatural and hallucinatory manifestations -- constantly threatening to erupt into the action until, with a great crash, she does, and that makes all the difference. A discussion of the Angel's role will have to wait, however. Bas Bleu is presenting the play in two parts, and so far, only Part 1: Millennium Approaches -- in which the Angel doesn't actually appear until the very end -- has opened. Part 2: Perestroika begins this weekend.

Angels in America starts with a rabbi speaking over the coffin of an elderly Jewish woman, an immigrant from Russia who "carried the Old World on her back" to America and bequeathed it to her descendants. Journeying will turn out to be a key theme in Angels, as will Jewishness. Two of the most important characters are Jewish. One is Louis, whose AIDS-stricken lover, Prior, has just discovered his first symptom of Kaposi's sarcoma, "the wine-dark kiss of the angel of death." Unable to face Prior's suffering and decline, Louis leaves him and is tormented by grief and guilt through the rest of the play.

Roy Cohn, the prosecutor whose sleazy machinations ensured Ethel and Julius Rosenberg's 1953 execution, also appears in Angels, and he's a different kind of Jew altogether: He's the macher, the operator, a blustering bully who's able to skirt decency and take whatever he wants because he's essentially rootless, loosed from all the bonds and norms of his own culture. The weird thing is that during the course of the play, you sometimes find yourself almost liking him. He's shameless and amusing. Like Shakespeare's Richard III, he's completely honest about his own evildoing and, also like Richard, he invites you into his immoral world with such relish that -- until you catch yourself -- you almost become complicit. There's something exhilarating about abandoning both good intentions and hypocrisy and soaring with the uber-raptor through his bright, sharp sky. But Cohn is ultimately tethered by AIDS -- although he continues to insist that, despite his habit of sleeping with young men, he isn't gay. His agony is witnessed by Ethel Rosenberg herself, a nice Jewish mother returned from the dead. She stands unmoved over the writhing Cohn but eventually calls 911 for him. Why? Because -- I'm convinced -- despite her justified and unforgiving rage, it's the Jewish thing to do.

The play even contains an approving reference to that ultimate yenta, Dr. Ruth, and her message to puritanical America that orgasms are fun.

The breakup of Prior and Louis is paralleled by the troubles of a second couple, Joe and Harper, both of them Mormons. Joe is decent, upright and secretly gay; Harper is mad, and Joe married her out of pity and in order to save her. Harper has visions. She thinks there's a man waiting for her in the bedroom with a knife. She frets about the ozone layer. She talks with a celestial travel agent and has access to a dreamspace in which she meets a hallucinating Prior, and they exchange information. Harper's is a seductive world, and as real to us as anything else in the play.

The AIDS epidemic is front and center in Angels. The play is set in the 1980s, when Reagan, with his dyed hair, glacially melting face and genial smile responded to the widespread suffering caused by the disease with contemptuous unconcern. You can feel playwright Kushner's rage in the dialogue. The Reagan presidency also partly powers the play's sense of imminent apocalypse. Apocalypse is at the heart of Angels in America: the terrifying teetering of the entire world, as well as the private, inescapable apocalypse of death. Prior, AIDS-ravaged, is the prophet of this apocalypse, and also the canary in the mine who sounds a warning.

Kushner is a socialist -- he has said in interviews that being a socialist in America is harder than being gay -- and his politics infuse every moment of the play. He not only places individual lives in their historical, social and philosophical context, but he concretizes these vast concepts in the bodies of his characters.

This all sounds high-minded and portentous, but Angels in America is actually almost cozy, welcoming and funny, filled with the familiar rhythms of gay and Jewish New York humor. Its moments of high emotion or poetic speechifying are almost always rapidly punctured or turned upside down. And the characters are people we care about, teasing at thought and imagination.

Director Laura Jones has assembled an excellent and, in a couple of cases, inspired cast. I wondered if she'd asked her actors to put aside ego in favor of the text, because most of them did. There is something wonderfully unassuming about Laura Norman's interpretation of Harper -- a role that could easily become irritating. Norman never sounds a false note, and her silences are filled with meaning. As written, the dying Prior is often whiny, snappish or unreasonable, but he has intellect and dignity, too. Todd Coulter plays all of this fully, and he also communicates the way a chill creeps around the heart when the angel of death approaches.

Leonard Barrett Jr. plays Belize, a wise, recovering drag queen who is also, being a nurse, a guide to the land of shadows. His acting is playful, self-aware without being self-conscious. Sometimes it feels doubled somehow, acting on top of acting, as if Barrett were both performing and holding up a puppet of himself performing. It's a risky way to go. The self-awareness could easily slide into empty posturing, but it never does, and his performance is both touching and entertaining. When Belize tells Prior, without sentimentality or undue emphasis, that he'll be with him all the way, you find your eyes filling.

If Belize and the Angel are both messengers, so is the soup-slurping homeless woman who reluctantly offers directions to Joe's mother -- a strict Mormon who's come to New York after Joe has confessed his homosexuality to her. This homeless woman is played by Wendy Ishii, who also plays a nurse and the Angel. Some actors radiate energy into the audience -- which Ishii can do -- but she's also magnificent when she hunches and mutters, drawing the audience in toward her.

Bruce K. Freestone's Cohn seems to have a shiny, metallic exterior, a kind of light-gray gloss that repels human empathy. It's an effective performance. Denise Burson Freestone, who plays the rabbi at the play's beginning, is also effective as Joe's mother, Hannah. Joe himself is played by Darren R. Schroader with a kindly modesty, and Kurt Brighton gives Louis all the nervous intellectuality I'd expect -- though one never really feels the love and sensual desire that supposedly flow between him and Prior.

This is Bas Bleu's first performance in its new space, a few blocks from the downtown area where the old theater was situated. The surroundings are more desolate, but the building is large enough for expansion and experimentation. Angels in America makes for an ambitious opening. It will be fascinating to see how the characters evolve as the cast navigates the currents of Part II: Perestroika, and just what the Angel will have to tell them.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman

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