Angels In America: The Great Work Begins
About five years ago, in my very first acting class of my college career, I performed a scene from a show called Angels in America. It was a simple assignment: memorize the lines, perform the 5 minute scene, get critiqued by my classmates, and receive a letter grade before the next scene was assigned for the class.
Five years later I found myself sitting in the Neil Simon Theater for seven-and-a-half hours, practically moved to tears by this same show that I now realize I barely, if at all, understood as an eighteen year old college freshman.
I was fortunate enough to see the limited run of Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, by Tony Kushner last Thursday and Friday evenings. The play, which is broken up into two parts; Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, runs 3.5 and 4 hours, respectively. The show centers around a group of people in the mid-1980s exploring the concepts of homosexuality, drug addiction, and most importantly, the AIDS epidemic that quite literally plagued a period of our history.
Going into the performances, I knew I was about to witness something spectacular based on the fact that the renowned actors, Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield, were leading the show as well as its 11 Tony nominations and 3 wins (two of which went to Lane and Garfield, the other to the show in its entirety for “Best Revival of a Play”). Within minutes of the show’s start, I knew I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.
The play began with a blackout: an ominous but impactful and meaningful introduction followed by the brilliant, melodious score, courtesy of Adrian Sutton.
This blackout-followed-by-music incident occurred throughout the play’s two parts, often signaling as the cue for intermission. There were two intermissions for each part, and were brilliantly placed after an emotionally charged speech had been given, a thoughtful piece of dialogue was spoken, or a major plot point revealed. It left everyone in the audience momentarily silenced with contemplativeness, but only for a moment, because we all couldn’t help but cheer at the spectacle we were witnessing.
Our cheers and applause were frequently the result of superb (this word is not adequate) acting moments from not only the Tony winners Lane and Garfield, but every single person in the cast. Though, in a play like this that touches on extremely dramatic and serious themes and issues, the subtlety beneath the eloquent, clever text combined to achieve an effect similar to a punch to the stomach.
Whether it was a long-winded rant or a witty one-liner, too many times to count, the wind was knocked out of me, so to speak, and I was left breathless, hanging on the actor(s)’ words long after they were done speaking.
This, I believe, was the show’s strongest asset. The pure amount of text was staggering to me as both a performer and an audience member, but what was even more impressive was the genuineness and maximum effort with which it was delivered by every person in the show.
In previous articles, I have commented on the stamina of actors and the unfathomable dedication it must take to give audiences every bit of energy, emotion, and accuracy as possible eight times per week. These actors, particularly Lane and Garfield, were exceptional in this sense, often making me forget I was watching a play and they were simply actors playing parts. Exceptional. There is simply no other way to describe it.
Though the almost-too-good-to-be-true acting drove the show, other elements helped take the audience on a journey. The set design was one of my favorite parts, represented by three turntables complete with simple yet striking lighting features, and rotating with the completion of each scene. This helped differentiate the lives of the characters and keep the audience in a specific place at a specific time. This arrangement was so primarily in Millennium Approaches whereas in Perestroika, the turntables remained un-utilized, and actors used the entire stage, signifying the lives of the characters intersecting.
I attended these performances alone. You might think that sitting in a theater by yourself for almost eight hours is the definition of a solitary experience, but it was far from it.
From the moment the first intermission took place the first night, there was an unspoken bond amongst audience members, because we all knew what we were witnessing was extremely special. The following night, I recognized many of the same people as we all gathered to see the second part and conclusion of the show. You could practically feel the excitement and anticipation among us of what was to come. In essence, a community was built by all those who attended, whether they were twenty-one, fifteen, or sixty-five years old. Not only does this play transcend age barriers, but, even reflecting on this experience almost a week later, I find myself still contemplating the show and its timeliness and relevance in the modern political and social climate. Sometimes things happen at the exact time you need them to, and in 2018, this anything but gentle reminder of our past and how far we have come as a nation was the piece we needed.
Perhaps the most iconic line from the play is: “The great work begins.” This could mean many things for many different people. But for me, walking out of the theater, this “great work” means taking with me and sharing the messages of acceptance, love, and hope that were imprinted upon me as a result of such masterful storytelling.