Review: Arts Club Theatre Company’s “Angels In America”
A night out at the theatre is meant to entertain, enlighten, and educate. People show up to take a break from the cruel realities that exist outside the auditorium’s doors. But sometimes the bitter truths and grim parallels between stage and reality are a shocking reality. Perhaps theatre is just as effective when it paints the real world in horrifyingly honest colours. If I learned anything in art school, it’s that not all art has to be pretty to be effective. This would definitely be the case for Tony Kushner’s Angels In America.
Now a quarter century since the epic debuted in Los Angeles back in the early ’90s, Angels In America remains a theatre staple. It may not have the razzle dazzle musicality or slapstick humour of other long-lasting productions, but it does have a passionate narrative intertwined with some relevant and harsh themes that are extremely important to be represented in this medium. For Arts Club to take on the two part epic (part two will premiere this fall as part of the company’s 2017/2018 season) is no small feat. The three hour long “part one” must be quite a mental, physical, and emotional gauntlet for its performers.
The eight person cast stands strong from beginning to end, with each performer as capable and quintessential as the last. Angels, for those uninitiated, delves head first into the ’80s AIDS crisis, re-examining the effects and the panic associated with the disease’s early days. Kushner’s script entangles two couples and their involvement with AIDS through relationships, social interactions, and cultural associations. The bitter realities are broadcast in a narrative that gives a warts and all depiction, and Arts Club isn’t afraid to showcase the vulnerabilities and horrors that many actual AIDS patients truly faced. At the forefront of the script, Prior Walter (Damien Atkins) leads the cast with a truly showstopping performance that is as stunning as it is emotionally evocative.
But the rest of the cast are just as effective and productive in selling Angels‘ bold truths. Another standout comes in the form of Prior’s boyfriend Louis Ironson, delivered by the typically comedy-heavy Ryan Beil. Beil’s light personality lends well to Louis, delving into dark emotional trenches and re-emerging in the most human ways imaginable. On the flip side, we have Celine Stubel as Harper Amity Pitt, a pill popping housewife who hallucinates to the point of discovery when she realizes her sexless marriage is due to her husband’s closeted sexuality. That husband just happens to be a Conservative Republican (Craig Erickson as Joseph Porter Pitt).
Clearly this cast is an intriguing bunch, and their social ties as well as connections to the AIDS epidemic make them all the more fascinating to watch. Luckily, Arts Club has cast picture perfect actors in each of the roles, which helps make Angels In America that much more gritty and raw in its delivery.
All of the production elements are up to Arts Club’s typical gold standard. Ken MacKenzie’s simple column and stairs-laden set acts as the perfect background for both public areas and manages to fade away for the many interior scenes. Sean Nieuwenhuis’s impressive video work adds a clever multimedia element to the show that helps elevate the performance up a few notches as well.
Ultimately, Angels In America is Arts Club’s brightest star so far this season. It has an incredible soul and immense passion, both of which translate to the stage thanks to a stunning cast and crew. Surely this fall audiences will be in for a real treat as part two takes center stage at The Stanley for a dashing finale.
Main image: Craig Erickson, Ryan Beil, and Damien Atkins in Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of Angels In America. All photography by David Cooper.
Angels In America:Written by Tony Kushner. Directed by Kim Collier.
Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of Angels In America runs through April 23, 2017 at The Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage.