Considering Know Theatre of Cincinnati’s 10-year track record of bold moves and departures, their doubleheader staging of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Angels in America: Perestroika should come as no surprise.
Who else? Who better?
Recall, please, Know’s Corpus Christi (Jesus and the Apostles as gay men in Texas), Thrill Me (an almost-opera about child murderers Leopold and Loeb), Hamlet (transformed into a multimedia experience) and, earlier this year, The Adding Machine (radical 1923 politics served up as a troubling musical).
Nor should it come as any surprise that Know would offer theater addicts — yes, I confess to being among them — several opportunities to immerse in the entire six-plus hours of both Angels on a single day.
On May 1, the three acts of Millennium commenced about 3 p.m. and broke for dinner at 6:20 p.m., with box lunches and all manner of libations available in Know’s laidback lobby/bar. Perestroika started at 8 p.m. and kept up its harrowing examination of AIDS patients, Reagan era politics and homophobia until well after 11. Two more double-header Saturdays are scheduled: this week and on May 15. (On May 1, both performances were sold out; tickets for subsequent performances are going fast.)
The final non-surprise in all this is that Know’s theater magicians have assembled eight able actors and turned them loose in passionate performances of main (one each) and subsidiary (several each) roles: Rob Jansen, Michael G. Bath, Amy Warner, Chris Guthrie, Joshua Murphy, Courtney Brown, Darnell Benjamin and Liz Vosmeier. They work under the guidance of two equally able directors: Brian Isaac Phillips (artistic director of Cincinnati Shakespeare Company) for Millennium and Drew Fracher (a freelance director lauded for his work at CSC, Ensemble Theatre and the late New Stage Collective) for Perestroika.
Pre-show anticipation was apparent in the lobby last Saturday. The buzz about Angels is definitely on. I’d never seen the line of waiting ticket holders form early, waiting for the house to open. A number of people said they were seeing both shows that day and relished the prospect. Two acquaintances had not been able to secure seats for the evening performance but planned to return later in the week.
Seating a full house took a little longer than usual. Then the theatrical onslaught launched, and a number of very good things quickly became apparent: Playwright and director keep clear the play’s multiple, inter-weaving threads of narrative. And Kushner possesses a talent rare in contemporary playwrights; he can write long, complex, story-telling, argument-explicating speeches that sound like dialogue but argue like soliloquies. Blissfully, Phillips and his actors knew how to deal with them.
The conclusion of Angels: Millennium is all but apocalyptic, as the angel appears. Yet we knew it wasn’t the end. Kushner’s empathic characters had more to tell us.
Despite all its awards and critical commendations — and despite more fine acting and Fracher’s somewhat softer but equally clarified direction — I found Perestroika to be more diffuse, less moving, more talky and less persuasive than Millennium. No fault of the director or performers, but it plays like a done-for-the-money sequel.
Still, as in the past, Know Theatre has done the city’s theater enthusiasts a serious service. Thanks are due to former Artistic Director Jason Bruffy, who decided to offer Angels, and to Managing Director Eric Vosmeier for making it happen and for scheduling the performances this way.
ANGELS IN AMERICA Part I: Millennium Approaches and Part II: Perestroika are presented by Know Theatre of Cincinnati through May 15; doubleheaders are scheduled for the next two Saturdays (May 8 and 15). Read Rick Pender's reviews of Millennium here and Perestroika here; both reviews have links to buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details.