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October 8, 2007 | by  | in Theatre | [ssba]

Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches

Angels in America is one of those classic plays. Traversing huge themes, with memorable characters and pure theatricality. It’s a perfect script for The Almost a Bird Collective who has made a name for itself re-envisioning classic scripts. And that’s exactly what they do here.

Designer Daniel Williams’ inventive set is made up of fridges and freezers which become caskets, desks, urinals, phone booths, wardrobes and entrance ways. The imaginative use of set and the small touches (grabbing toilet roll from inside the fridge door whilst in the men’s toilets) effectively merge the imaginative and realistic elements in the play. The fridge motif evokes the emptiness, the cold and the isolation the world is falling into. “Everywhere things are collapsing” and that’s exactly what we see in the literal way the fridges are used to become one thing, and then another.

Karl Jenkins’ lighting is inspired, moving us from the world of grim reality to imagined landscapes in a second. Pat McIntosh’s soundscape supports this beautifully. Emily Smith’s costumes are stunning, and she has real fun creating the dream elements, from Harper’s snowsuit to Mr Lie’s outfit.

Sophie Roberts (as valium-addicted, Mormon housewife Harper Pitt) is fantastic – she really brings out some of the cruel comedy in the lines, and having read this play so many times myself, she makes it leap off the page.

Matthew Whelan as Prior Walter, gay AIDS sufferer and sometimes drag queen, manages to make the camper-than-camp character utterly realistic. He truly becomes the character, his physicality and gestures infusing every line he says. Yet he crosses the emotional territory from fabulous joker to suffering, desperate and heartbroken with ease. Byron Coll as tough, secretly gay, lawyer Roy Cohn is a delight to watch, and his speech where he discusses his sexuality is powerful stuff.

Dan Musgrove plays Joseph Pitt, secretly gay Mormon torn between his duty to his wife and the pressure from Cohn to take a job in Washington. Musgrove is beautifully divided and brings real heart to the role. Martyn Wood as Louis, Prior’s lover who leaves him when he can’t cope with Prior’s illness, manages to evoke sympathy from the audience at his inability to feel. Anya Tate-Manning, Asalemo Tofete, Maria Rose MacDonald and Colleen Davis all play a variety of other roles and bring energy and conviction to each, showing off their incredible range as actors.

The non-realistic scenes are difficult stuff, and could be so bad in the wrong hands, but this production pulls everything off with grace and style, making for some of the first theatre all year when I’ve been truly moved – the end of act two with the overlapping break up scenes of Prior and Louis, and Harper and Joe an absolute highlight.

A great play beautifully realised. I know it’s the graduation production, but why is it only playing for a week? Especially when it’s the best thing I’ve seen at Downstage all year. Downstage should extend this season, and give them a commission to do the second half next year.

Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches
By Tony Kushner
Directed by Willem Wassenaar
Produced by Almost a Bird Collective and Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School
Downstage, Sept 29 – Oct 6


About the Author ()

Well hello there. Eleanor was the Theatre Editor in 2007, now she writes the Women's Column and just generally minces about the Salient office. Eleanor is currently an Honours student in Theatre (with a touch of gender). She also has a BCA in Marketing but she tries to keep that on the d-low (embarrassing, because she loves academic integrity and also perpetuating the myth that she's a tad bohemian). If you've got a gender agenda, woo her by taking her a BYO Malaysian. She lies, if you show any interest at all she'll probably tackle you in the street and force you to write a column.

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