From Angels In America
I went to a performance of Part One “Millennium Approaches” of Angels in America, at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts, UC Irvine, Friday night Jan. 31. It was a credible production of the play, first performed in 1990, with the standout roles of Roy Cohn performed by Jacob Dresch and Louis Ironson played by Josh Odsess-Rubin, the only equity actor in the company. The rest of the performers gave decent performances with none that struck as being amateurish. The performance was longish, over three hours with two ten minute intermissions, but it was riveting throughout as the use of lighting and sound effects were put to good effect. Minimal staging, with only the final appearance of the Angel being of a truly fantastic nature, did not distract from the acting or the storyline.
The essence of the story being the tale of two couples one straight and Mormon in which the husband comes out as gay as he is being enticed by Roy Cohn, the infamous lawyer and former protege of Senator Joseph McCarthy (according to the play), to leave his estranged wife to take a Justice Dept. job in Washington, DC. The other a gay couple where one is diagnosed with AIDS. His partner can’t deal with it and abandons his partner, eventually winding up with the Mormon who eventually rejected Cohn’s offer because of the strings attached involving corrupt practices. The wife of Mormon, Harper Pitt acted by Bri McWhortor, is addicted to valium and has visions as does the drag queen partner in the gay couple Prior Walter played by Matt Koenig who, as the scion of a family that traces itself back to the 1066 Norman Invasion, has visitations from his ancestors, one who died from the Bubonic plague, another who was apparently gay and from some time after the Stuart Restoration, as well as an ominous voice warning of the coming of the Millennium.
Louis goes through agonies of guilt at his lack of constancy to his AIDS suffering boyfriend Prior. A former drag queen Belize performed by Anthony Simone, acts as a go between between Louis who has left Prior and Prior who is in the hospital through much of the play. Louis who represents the somewhat militant polemic leftist faction of the gay community, goes on a particularly insensitive rant about oppression in which he tries to explain that racism in the USA is political and not race based as he claims it is in Europe. This argument does not fly with Belize a black, gay person who experiences that racist oppression. This very clearly portrays the lack of relevance of much of the radical left in the mid eighties, as well as Louis’s own inability to commit to love.
There are various displays of psychotic/prophetic episodes that revolve around the seemingly end of the world presence of AIDS which emerged in the 1980’s in the Gay Community and was initially almost invariably fatal, much like the Bubonic Plague of the Middle Ages. The play’s author Tony Kushner, who wrote it in 1985 in the midst of the AIDS crisis, does an admirable job conveying the sense of despair, fear, and escapism of the period before ACT UP had appeared in 1987, demanding greater Government funding and research to cure the disease. There is something of a Poe like macabre quality to the play whose “The Masque of the Red Death” Kushner’s work evokes at times.
The carnival mask, which had its origins in the plague, perhaps analogized as the Drag Queen’s makeup both could be symbols hiding the presence of the immanent death inherent in these mass killers. What made AIDS particularly demonic was the seemingly specific type of victims, Gays, Intravenous Drug Users and Hemophiliacs, that inspired religious fundamentalists to revile its victims as suffering from the wrath of a deity. This is turned on its head by the author by focusing on Mormons, a fundamentalist religion that was also somewhat outcast, thus creating a duality. This duality the extremely conservative, no drug, no sex except for reproduction Mormons weighed against the pro-drug and promiscuous sex of the Gay community, creates an interesting set of straw men for Kushner to then demolish with his humanistic approach that defies the conventions of each community, offering a way for a deeper understanding of the human fallibility and commonality found with this.
Cohn is an interesting example, extreme right winger, hounded Judge Irving Kaufman in the Rosenberg Trial, according to the play, to execute the convicted Ethel Rosenberg, who could have been spared the death penalty but for Cohn’s efforts (according to subsequent evidence was only guilty of supporting her husband, not of espionage). Cohn was an assistant to United States Attorney Irving Saypol, successful prosecutor of Alger Hiss and prosecutor in the 1951 Rosenberg trial.
In the play Cohn is portrayed as a Machiavellian schemer and power broker who is at the end of his tether, sick with AIDS himself, although denying it to the end, even threatening to ruin his doctor if information was released. Yet he is portrayed with some sensitivity, a warped soul who turns to his young proteges for affection, and in turn promotes them to positions of power in the Republican establishment. He brags at one point of having Nancy Regan’s personal number. This is a commentary both on the dark side of the Gay community, and also on the corrupting influence of power. Cohn’s protege, the Mormon Joe Pitt, played by Adam Schroeder, although in the closet, is admirably able to distinguish between the ethical position of his office, as a low paid law clerk in New York, and the temptation to power and better pay in Washington, DC., working for Attorney General Ed Meese, but owing Cohn a favor, in this case to bury the investigation that would lead to Cohn’s disbarment.
Many issues are brought up in the play, subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” and I have only mentioned a few. Excellent well worth seeing. Last performance in Irvine is Feb. 2, 2014.
The account of the Rosenberg trial given by Doug Lindner can be found at this link: