Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama unleashes its innovative resources to full effect in the staging of Tony Kushner's "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches," part one of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
"Angels" also won best play Tonys for both parts of "Angels" ("Perestroika" is part two), works that put enormous demands on any creative team. Actors play multiple roles and in some cases represent real people, plus characters conjured in hallucinations.
Parallel scenes intertwine as illness, sexuality, morality and politics wage roller-coaster battles on two young couples -- openly gay lovers Louis and Prior, and Joe and Harper, a Mormon couple struggling with his homosexuality and her feelings of abandonment and addiction to pills. Others stirred into this sampling of Reagan-era New York, when HIV/AIDS began stealing lives by the hundreds, are zealous attorney Roy Cohn, who prosecuted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and worked with Joe McCarthy in the Red Scare days, and Belize, a drag queen and empathetic nurse.
CMU's production, directed by Jed Allen Harris and designed by Britton Mauk (set), Calvin G. Johnson (lighting) and Larry Shea (media), gives the setting a power of its own, even in a play with characters writ large. The movable backdrop is propped up by wooden planks that are systemically removed, transforming a wall into a menacing presence, closing in on the action, opening to reveal who-knows-what or perpetrating giant projections. The stage floor pulsates with patterns at times, while flashes of red light indicate scene changes as set pieces slide effortlessly into and out of place.
The youth of the eight-person cast is served mostly where youth is called for. Trevor McQueen-Eaton is an appealing Prior Walter, a witty provocateur who is stricken with AIDS, and Jesse Carrey-Beaver is properly conflicted as his guilt-ridden lover Louis. Adam Hagenbuch grows in the role of Joe, a young Republican on the job and absentee husband at home, while Emily Koch, as Joe's wife, Harper, ping-pongs from lucid yearnings to hallucinatory escapes. Rodney Earl Jackson Jr. has brief and welcome moments as Belize, a role that grows in part two of Mr. Kushner's event plays, which hit the theater scene in the early '90s. These are the earthly angels touched by the AIDS epidemic.
Although the millennium marker of 2000 has come and gone and medical science has given HIV/AIDS a run for its money, the messages of "Angels in America" remain on target. Every mention of the Reagan years and conservative values, even the fact that Joe and Harper are Mormons, seems prescient in this election year. Ample program notes include an interview with Margaret Johnson, senior program officer for the TB/HIV Global Health Program of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, who notes that "once [the virus] gets in and establishes itself, it's pretty much there until we find a cure."
Just last year, Signature Theater Company in New York performed both parts of "Angels in America" with three CMU alums (Zachary Quinto, Billy Porter and Christian Borle) on a relatively tiny off-Broadway stage. That production was accomplished in tight quarters with few bells and whistles.
On a much larger stage at the Philip Chosky Theatre, Carnegie Mellon's creative team employs the technology at its disposal to great effect. They may be showing off, but if you've got it, this is the way to flaunt it.
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960.