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Saturday, July 20, 2024

Theatre review: Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches transcends its place in history

Tony Kushner’s complex and layered exposition on the AIDS crisis of the 1980s still resonates

It isn’t often the same show deserves to be seen twice in the same season. Angels in America: Millennium Approaches is that exception.

Following the impressive student presentation at Langara’s Studio 58 in October, the professionals at Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre Company are presenting a production worthy of Tony Kushner’s epic play.

Written twenty-five years ago, Kushner’s complex and layered exposition on the AIDS crisis of the 1980s still resonates. What might be surprising though is the play’s significance doesn’t just come from its historical view into the ravages of AIDS. Rather, its biggest strengths continue to be an unflinching view on politics, greed, and religion. With a surprising mix of optimism and longing, Angels in America feels very much like 2017.

This is also a play of significance, not easily dismissed as a product of another time. Angels in America transcends its place in the history of theatre and its real-world themes. It remains timeless.

Befitting its significance, director Kim Collier and her creative team have created an impressive platform for her actors, both literally and figuratively.

Set designer Ken McKenzie’s massive columns and staircase give import to Kushner’s story. Live video feeds inside the dreams and hallucinations of Prior Walter and Harper Pitt are made larger-than-life as they are projected on massive curtains rising above the stage floor. Torquil Campbell and Alessandro Juliani provide beautifully crafted original music and soundscape to underscore the action.

Director Kim Collier’s grand ideas do come with a price at times. There is an intimacy in Kushner’s story of life, death and love that is sometimes fleeting inside the Stanley Theatre and her play’s massive design. There is also the distraction from the live video, towering above the actors and out-of-sync with their dialogue. While Collier’s vision comes together to underscore the importance of its larger themes, it creates an unintended emotional void in the play’s smaller moments. Fortunately, Collier has assembled an impressive cast to help fill that void.

The Arts Club Theatre Company will present part two of Kushner's Angels in America as the opener to its 2017/2018 season. Photo by David Cooper.
The Arts Club Theatre Company opens its 2017/2018 with part two of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Photo by David Cooper.

Damien Atkins is simply superb as the AIDS ravaged Prior Walter. Atkins’ vulnerability gives way to a fear and anguish that is believable and ultimately heart wrenching. Small things can make a performance and Atkins is full of subtleties, both physical and emotional.

Stephen Jackman-Torkoff makes his Arts Club debut with a mesmerizing performance. In a Jessie worthy performance, Jackman-Torkoff shows his acting skills in two distinct roles as the openly gay Belize, and the hallucination-generated Mr Lies.

As Ironson, Biel remains very much in-his-head while navigating desire, loneliness and a sense of worth; a very realistic place for many gay men. Craig Erickson is ultimately believable as the sexually conflicted Joseph Pitt, and Celine Stubel brings the pill-popping Harper to life with a blend of despair and confusion.

Arguably with the toughest job of the night, Brian Markinson not only plays the real-life Roy M Cohn, he does so under the spectre of Al Pacino’s unforgettable performance in the HBO mini-series based on the play. Markinson is up to this challenge in playing the closeted gay man who refuses to acknowledge he is dying from AIDS.

Rounding out the cast are Lois Anderson and Gabrielle Rose in a variety of roles. We will hear more from both of these actors in September as the Arts Club opens its 2017/2018 season with Angels in America: Perestroika, part two of Kushner’s seminal play.

Thank goodness for second chances. Those that missed out in seeing this Tony Award-winning masterpiece last year should take full advantage now.

Angels in America: Millennium Approaches by Tony Kushner. Directed by Kim Collier. An Arts Club Theatre Company production on stage at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage (2750 Granville St, Vancouver) until April 23. Visit for tickets and information.

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