Alex Bodine in "Angels in America" at Cygnet Theatre. Photo by Daren Scott
For its annual presentation of two shows in rotating repertory, Cygnet Theatre is staging a 25th-anniversary production of Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. The two-part masterpiece which, according to Cygnet program notes, Kushner pitched as being about “Mormons, Roy Cohn and AIDS,” gets an electrifying, all-out staging in Old Town with a strong cast directed by Sean Murray that includes Alex Bodine in the harrowing role of Prior Walter and James Newcomb as the despicable Cohn, both of whom are afflicted with the inscrutable and terrible virus.
Part One: Millennium Approaches, which establishes the characters who interweave in Reagan’s 1985 America, showcases Kushner’s dexterity of language and razor-sharp perception of the body politic of the time. (Parallels to the present day are eerily appropriate.) The coming millennium and the emerging horror of AIDS fill the air with fear and extreme anxiety. Besides the visceral performances of Bodine and Newcomb, Connor Sullivan stands out as the emotionally and sexually conflicted Joe Pitt, and Will Bethmann brings manic ferocity to the role of Louis Ironson, Prior’s over-intellectualizing lover. The sound effects sometimes accompanying the narrative can be jarring, but they do not overwhelm the urgency of the story.
Part Two: Perestroika is definitely the lesser of the two halves, though not by much. Fantasy sequences (or are they?) and a feverish scene between Prior and The Angel (Debra Wanger) contribute touches of surrealism, while elsewhere Kushner injects notes of outright humor into the unfolding drama. Perestroika does provide key moments to shine for Rosina Reynolds, who beautifully plays multiple roles throughout both shows, and for Kevane La’Marr Coleman, who reprises the part of a nurse and friend to Prior that he played in bygone ion theatre’s superb 2011 production of Angels in America.
The prolificacy of Kushner and the stamina of Cygnet’s ensemble (the two parts add up to between six and seven hours of live theater) combine for an emotionally exhausting but stalwart 25th-anniversary Angels in America. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 3/27/19.)
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David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.