Angels in America, Part I Millennium Approaches & Part II Perestroika
Directed by Chris Ling
28 November – 13 December 2015, Damansara Performing Arts Centre
REVIEW BY TICKET TIGER
In a scene from Millennium Approaches, Roy Cohn (Qahar Aqilah), a ruthless lawyer, speaks to Joe Pitt (Michael Chen), a chief clerk to a judge. Roy reveals an unwelcome letter from the American Bar Association: a motion to disbar him. Joe has been vacillating on an offer to join the Justice Department which Roy has pulled strings to procure. This time, Roy adds a little fine print: he wants Joe to exert undue pressure on those trying to disbar him. Joe protests it would be unethical. Roy scoffs at the clerk’s naivety and then rattles him:
“This is gastric juices churning, this is enzymes and acids, this is intestinal is what this is, bowel movement and blood-red meat—this stinks, this is politics, Joe, the game of being alive.”
The chilling line captures Angels in America. It is deeply political not just in the conventional sense of the word, but also an exploration of the politics of personal identity, race, sexuality, religion, disease and their complex interplay. It does not shy away from the less savoury aspects of human behaviour: fear, greed, discrimination, hypocrisy, selfishness and self-righteousness. It pushes its characters through messy crises, grapples with meaty ideas and spills blood (both metaphorical and literal) along the way.
And yet through it all, Angels in America finds beauty in that mess and celebrates life. It celebrates that life and death and love and time’s passing are intertwined inextricably, even as its characters are.
Angels in America consists of two three-hour parts: Part I Millennium Approaches and Part II Perestroika, performed as two separate halves. Part I was staged last year by theatrethreesixty to full houses. This year, Chris Ling again directs substantially the same cast in both parts at the Damansara Performing Arts Centre. A play this long can be taxing even for the most enthused of patrons, but this production does offer a host of rewards: humour, wit, moments of poetry and poignancy, and very fine acting.
I found Qahar Aqillah’s portrayal of Roy Cohn particularly riveting. Roy swells with angst and bile and his hypocrisy is abhorrent, but one senses he deeply enjoys the struggle to survive. He is most alive when kicking and screaming, most in his element when attacked. Qahar portrays Roy’s journey from powerful lawyer to bedridden AIDS victim with controlled energy and precision, and he revels in the character’s bullish spirit right till his dying breath.
Roy Cohn’s sins may be the most plentiful and apparent but he is far from being the only monster on stage. No one is spared enzymes and acids in this play: every character is deeply flawed, all groping for their own sense of redemption in a world filled with darkness.
Prior Walter (Dominic Lucien Luk) is left by his lover, Louis Ironson (Lim Kien Lee), upon revealing he has AIDS. Louis meets Joe Pitt at the courthouse where they both work, and they soon become romantically entangled with each other. Joe struggles with his Mormon faith and his repressed sexuality, while his wife Harper Pitt (Belinda Hon) struggles with her husband’s emotional distance and her own addiction to valium. Rolling into this petri dish is Joe’s staunch Mormon mother Hannah Pitt (Sandra Sodhy), Prior’s friend and nurse Belize (Ivan Chan), an Angel (Alexis Wong), plus an assortment of ghosts, doctors and nurses, angels and other characters (the actors play multiple roles, and Nicole-Ann Thomas plays so many you’ll lose count).
This year’s cast collectively display some of the best ensemble acting I’ve seen on the Malaysian stage. The new additions of Lim Kien Lee, Michael Chen and Ivan Chan bring a more matured and nuanced portrayal of their roles compared to last year’s staging. Another joy this year is seeing how actors like Sandra Sodhy and Nicole-Ann Thomas have added depth to their characters, when in last year’s production their portrayals seemed slight.
Dominic Lucien Luk’s portrayal of Prior Walter, a man succumbing to AIDS with feverish visions of an Angel who anoints him as a prophet, was a joy to watch last year. This time round, Luk gets to flesh out further a man whose vulnerability and pain are enveloped in witty humour and determination. In a role that could have been overplayed with camp or exaggerated pain, Luk maintained a consistent commitment to Prior’s refusal to be stepped on, be it by his disease, his ex-lover, his country or even heavenly beings.
Belinda Hon’s Harper is portrayed with depths of confusion and apprehension but never condescension or histrionics. Hon’s comic timing is delightfully sharp, even when (or perhaps particularly because) Harper spends much of her stage time being as high as a kite.
Part I was excellent in building up the dread of impending doom (ably helped by excellent sound design by Ariff Kamil and Syahreez Redza). By the end of Part I, I felt a true sense of chill, as if the stage was really covered in winter. Yet in Part II, a few of those anticipated moments of turmoil felt jarring to contemporary eyes. America has simply moved on so far from the homophobia of the Eighties. The AIDS crisis no longer grips America the way it used to, and the ignorance and taboo surrounding the disease has waned. In retrospect, the Cold War jitters of a “great nation” on the verge of doom seem to have been misplaced — doomed or otherwise, even Americans realise all that Eighties jingoism about their country was excessive.
The work which Kushner calls his audience to perform, of dispelling ignorance and discrimination together, has in fact moved mountains. Same-sex marriage is now recognised by the Supreme Court — a notion unfathomable even in 1993 when the play was written.
But like all great work, it is unfinished and unevenly performed. In many countries, scores of people have little access to healthcare for AIDs. In our own country, the fear of disintegration and impending disaster is unfortunately very relatable. In our local milieu of discrimination and indifference towards the marginalised, the play’s call to band together for change is still forceful.
Angels in America’s ultimate message is as deeply hopeful as it is humanistic: we need each other because we have no one else. God has left and His angels are even more directionless than we are. (In a comic moment of truly human proportions, the Angel rolls her eyes at heavenly “disorganisation” in failing to inform Prior of the location of an important book). We have to be our own angels now. We are messed up, selfish, confused, scared, diseased, dying and very lost, but we have no one else. If we choose not to work together and help each other, we will be doomed.
The mark of a truly great play is that it is unmistakably of its age, and yet speaks out beyond its age. Angels in America is very much of its time and place: it is very American, very Eighties and very New York. Yet, over twenty years after its writing, its daring exploration of life’s knots and pains still speaks to us with lucidity and universality.
It is an unfortunate reality of Malaysian theatre that ambitious and challenging full-length plays like Angels in America are so seldom staged. Yet perhaps the more unfortunate reality is that Angels in America saw only a modest crowd when I watched it. I only hope we realise that we need to keep supporting companies and directors like Chris Ling who have the chutzpah to serve up meaty and complex plays like this.
All photos by Ch’ng Shi P’ng, courtesy of theatrethreesixty.