Resurrecting “Angels” 

Charlottesville’s Live Arts takes back a masterpiece from the overblown HBO version.

Why does Kushner’s script fare better as a play than a film? The answer has to do with the differences between live theater and other forms of the performing arts. A camera relentlessly records everything before it. Certain types of scripts (the ruthless realism of “The Sopranos,” for example) are perfect for the lens. But while the stage cannot compete in a world of detailed reproductions, it does enjoy considerable advantages when it comes to surrealism and the sheer theatricality of a play like “Angels in America.” Not only that, a stage play is a collaboration between cast and audience to create magic onstage. And make no mistake about it — this is one magical play. The one-way nature of television simply cannot produce this kind of communal event.

That leads to one of the satisfying aspects of this production. It emphasizes the spiritual aspects of the script over a rehash of the political battles of the 1980s. Sure, this is a play about the status of homosexual men in America. But it’s also about a connection to things greater than one’s self. This theme is woven through the behavior of spiritually challenged characters. A young man, Prior Walter, has been diagnosed with AIDS. His lover, Louis (Chris Patrick), unsure of his ability to deal with Prior’s illness, fights the urge to walk away from the relationship. Meanwhile, Roy Cohn (Jim Johnston), the legendary New York attorney, tries to convince Joe Pitt (Bill LeSueur) to take a job in the Reagan Justice Department in order to block Cohn’s imminent disbarment. Pitt’s wife, Harper (Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell), starved for affection (and sex), has become a Valium addict who hallucinates that a manic travel agent (Amdie Mengistu) can whisk her off to Antarctica.

There isn’t a false note in any of the performances. LeSueur is particularly good as the Mormon law clerk struggling with his sexuality. And Patrick brings far more humanity to Louis than the actor who played the character in the HBO film.

“Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches” is the concluding play of Live Arts’ first season in its new space in the City Center for Contemporary Arts (It will open the 2004-2005 season in September with “Angels in America, Part 2: Perestroika”). This is a stage created by people who clearly understand the magic-making possibilities of theater. In fact, one of the architects of the center, Jeff Bushman, designed the show’s imposing set. And though this is a review of a show and not a theater, I can’t help mentioning the theater’s most striking features, its comfortable intimacy and its tremendous technical capacity for stagecraft.

The program states flatly that the theater was specifically designed around the angel who appears in this play. They couldn’t have chosen a better script to construct a theatrical space for. Not only is the two-story flexible stage useful for the angel’s rigging (designed by Delbert Hall), the verticality and straight-down lighting creates implicit religious and magical overtones that will serve any number of scripts in the coming years. It’s no accident that the builders of medieval cathedrals also emphasized the vertical in their designs.

Live Arts will also have a legend to tell about the opening show. The Wednesday before the opening, the actor playing Prior Walter left the cast. The director (and artistic director of Live Arts), John Gibson, stepped into the breach carrying a small bound notebook. He managed to glimpse his lines without disrupting a scene or calling attention to the notebook. If anything, his amazing performance only adds to the transcendent nature of this production.

The spectacular appearance of the angel (Mendy St. Ours) at the end of the play is worth the trip and modest $15 ticket price alone. And, by the way, if anyone’s got a truck and cable big enough to tow an entire theater, please drag this one east when no one’s looking. We could use it here in Richmond. S

“Angels in America” continues through June 28 at Live Arts, 123 East Water St. in Charlottesville. Tickets cost $10-$15, call (434) 977-4177 or go to livearts.org.

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