Review: Berkeley Rep’s magical ‘Angels in America’ overwhelms, inspires

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The Angel (Francesca Faridany) visits Prior Walter (Randy Harrison) in “Angels in America,” running through July 22nd in Berkeley. (Kevin Berne photo)

It is overwhelming to experience the marathon of Tony Kushner’s two-part masterpiece “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” It almost feels like returning to your corner in a grueling boxing match when scenes end to get a shot of water, only to be sent out again to continue the fight a minute later. You are swept up not only by the epic nature of the story, but the history of it all – a production that had its world premiere up the road in San Francisco, directed then and now by Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s artistic director Tony Taccone. But most importantly, you are dragged up and down and live, breathe and live some more with these remarkable, passionate and memorable characters from the genius mind of Kushner.

Seeing a show that boasts a total of four 15-minute intermissions, a day that begins at 1 pm and ends just south of 11 with a dinner break in between just feels special.

This play is fresh.

This play is timeless.

This play is special.

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Joe (Danny Binstock) and Harper (Bethany Jillard) reach a crossroads in their marriage and their Mormon faith. (Kevin Berne photo)

It’s not just because of its role in the history of the world theatre. That knowledge, the fact that we bear witness to multiple mediums of history, completely overwhelms on so many levels. We are witnessing Stephen Spinella, a man who won the Tony award for his role as Prior Walter back in 1994, spit and bite his way through the role of the despicable Roy Cohn. Cohn, who is well-known as Donald Trump’s and senator Joseph McCarthy’s attorney and one who played a huge role in the electrocution of spy Ethel Rosenberg, is not sympathetic here in any way, shape or form. We cringe at the blatant homophobic insults that certainly throws off the scent of his own closeted existence, and we marvel at his power and verve, the power that has a doctor agree to a false diagnosis in order for Cohn to save face. Spinella’s Cohn spits in the face of convention and rages against the dying of his own light.

Spinella’s performance is one of eight on the stage that take committing to multiple characters to an entirely different level. The story, which ebbs and flows seamlessly through hilarious and poignant fantasy, focuses on so much new information the characters are faced with, a plethora of discoveries that are now their new reality.

The most painful is the realization that the mark of death, a symptom called Kaposi Sarcoma has shown up on Prior Walter (an absolutely fabulous, surreal turn by the great Randy Harrison). He turns it into a pun-fest using the word lesion as his jumping off point, attempting to soften the blow for his boyfriend Louis (an effectively skittish Benjamin T. Ismail). The new reality for Louis is to have a front-row seat to the cruelest of cruel diseases that will ultimately take his beloved. Nights will be filled with pain, sweat, diarrhea and gripping fear, a reality Louis may not be ready for.

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Ethel Rosenberg (Carmen Roman) visits with Roy Cohn (Stephen Spinella). (Kevin Berne photo)

Another reality is staring into the green eyes of devout Mormon Joseph Porter Pitt (a deeply conflicted turn by Danny Binstock), a Ronald Reagan Republican who often finds himself in conversations set in strange locations. Whether it’s enjoying a hot dog on the courthouse steps or meeting a man in the bathroom, Joseph is locked into constant crisis mode. His agoraphobic wife Harper (a magical Bethany Jillard) is often high as hell thanks to a pill addiction, which threatens to put an extra char on supper. Even though their deeper affections come in the form of a “Buddy kiss,” a peck on the lips that make a first kiss between two middle schoolers seem positively passionate, pills seem to be helping her. After all, she now has people walking through her refrigerator and couch, offering to take her to the snow. She scoffs at his attempts to pray after confronting him about what is obvious to everyone he interacts with.

The rest of the cast is as well-ranged as can be. Caldwell Tidicue, also known as Bob the Drag Queen, is blessed to play characters that are so beautiful and calming, truly advocating for and fulfilling the needs of those of us in the audience. His turn as the sassy nurse sent in to deal with Cohn and his line-crossing vulgarity is just loaded with beautiful notes at all times. He is also a fantastic listener, building his reactions through his fellow partners, especially in the kvetch fest that Louis presents to him early on as they chat in a café.

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Louis (Benjamin T. Ismail, left) visits with Prior Walter (Harrison). (Kevin Berne photo)

Carmen Roman, who plays the eerie Rosenberg as well as devout Mormon mother Hannah Pitt builds her moments with the heavy hand of truth. Hannah’s initial introduction to the story is not a good one, yet her deliverance and acceptance of humanity is inspiring. And Francesca Faridany as the Angel fulfills beautifully the vision of Taccone’s stellar directing and Kushner’s timeless words.

The play is also a visceral reminder of the ugliness that took place in the mid-1980’s, when AIDS cases were first discovered in 1981 yet President Reagan would not mention the word AIDS at all until years later, in 1987.

Looking back at the 1980s and the unspeakable hell that was wrought is hard to watch. I will always remember a news report as a kid at that time, when a town hall group asked questions of a doctor, questions such as “Can I get AIDS by wrestling with someone and having their sweat get on me?” or even “Can I get AIDS from shaking hands?” The fear of a toilet seat, a kiss on the cheek or of seeing a loved one slowly wither away is still both heartbreaking and infuriating.

While “Angels in America” certainly infuriates and reminds, it also inspires and validates. And with every word shared through Kushner’s infinite vocabulary and Taccone’s magnificent direction, the audience gets a fantastic reminder that through tragedy, dignity and pride will always soar on the wings of an angel.

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Belize (Caldwell Tidicue) tolerates the irascible Roy Cohn (Spinella). (Kevin Berne photo)

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes”
Part 1 – ‘Millennium Approaches” – Running time: Three hours, 30 minutes with two 15-minute intermissions
Part 2 – “Perestroika” – Running time: Three hours, 40 minutes with two 15-minute intermissions
Written by Tony Kushner
Directed by Tony Taccone
The word: An overwhelming experience that reminds us of a painful and heartbreaking time in our nation’s history, and how beauty, heart and love are seen as healers. An overwhelming experience.
Stars: 5 out of 5
Through July 22nd
The Roda Theatre
2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Tickets range from $40 – $100
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org

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