The Great Work Continues

It's 72 hours after election night, and I'm halfway through the Saddleback College production of Tony Kushner's landmark Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches, when the opening of Act 2, Scene 6 arrives. Three characters, Republicans all, are in a restaurant when Martin Heller (Jacob Penn Sangiorgio), a Justice Department flack working in the Reagan administration, starts salivating about the impending doom of liberalism: "It's a revolution in Washington, Joe. We have a new agenda and finally a real leader. . . . We'll get our way on just about everything: abortion, defense . . . family values . . . We have the White House locked up till the year 2000. And beyond. A permanent fix on the Oval Office? It's possible."

Like anyone trudging through the five stages of grief, this was not what I needed to hear (what I needed to hear was "The Canadian government has approved your immigration request"). But the scene shows Kushner's prophetic genius, for better or worse—nothing really has changed since the late '80s and early '90s, when he penned his monumental two-part, six-hour opus that won Tony Awards, Pulitzer Prizes, Emmy Awards (with Mike Nichols' superb HBO adaptation last year) and slobbering raves the world over. As it should have: Angels is nothing less than one of the most important theater works of the 20th century, a railing against the moral and political evils of the Reagan years, sure, but far more because of its humanistic elements—its anger, its poignancy, its drama, its humor, its soul, its life.

It's also complex storytelling, with its constant scene splicing, dream sequences, and locales that shift from New York City to Utah to Antarctica and beyond. If you don't know the main characters by now—and if you don't, what the hell is wrong with you?—here's the rundown: there's Prior Walter (Daniel Rubiano), a AIDS-stricken man who hears strange voices throughout the play; his lover, Louis (Ryan Michael Dominguez), so terrified of losing Prior he abandons him in his hospital bed, fleeing his ultimate fear; Joe Pitt (Darren Nash), a Mormon Republican; Joe's pill-popping wife, Harper (Nakisa Aschtiani), whose hallucinations provide some of the play's funniest lines; and Roy Cohn (Lawrence Hemingway), who's modeled after the real Roy Cohn, Joseph McCarthy's henchman during the Commie witch-hunts of the 1950s who in life really was a closeted, corrupt, hypocritical ass. Great, rich, deep roles, all of them—the cast members don't really play their parts as much as the parts play them, which is another nod to Kushner's incredible scripting.

The bigger story here, though, is that, to our knowledge, this is the first staging of Angels anywhere in OC (the closest it came was at Cal State Long Beach in 2000-2001). That this first-rate, pro-quality production has been taken on by a small-budgeted community-college theater department makes it all the more remarkable, sticking as director Patrick Fennel does with Kushner's original vision, with whole scenes played out in small areas of the stage, and all the assorted bells and whistles—they've even gotten the Angel (Dana Kemmerle) to come crashing down through Prior's ceiling at the conclusion.

Unfortunately, there will be no staging at Saddleback of Perestroika, the second half of Angels. Fennel says this sticks with the play's initial piecemeal workshop development—Kushner wrote Millennium and Perestroika a year apart. But also, Saddleback's McKinney Theater will be undergoing extensive light and sound revamping in the spring, so he couldn't produce Perestroika even if he wanted to. Perhaps in the fall? We're hoping. Meanwhile, there's always the HBO telecast on DVD.

As terrific as Kushner's work and Fennel's cast is, the McKinney was shockingly less than half-full for the performance I saw, even with ticket prices being less than 10 bucks. Some people even walked out during the break and never returned (I heard grumblings of "awful" bandied about), and a few scurried quickly out during the anonymous-butt-sex-in-the-park scene—what part of "a gay fantasia on national themes" didn't they understand? Then we ran into a journalist colleague who told us that Saddleback productions are well-attended by conservative-leaning residents of nearby Leisure World who'll see just about anything (there were similar walkouts during Saddleback's staging of The Laramie Project). In the face of such idiocy, Fennel should be hailed for his courage, especially in a world that will feel the wrath of four more Bush years.

But then, that's part of what Angels is about—of continuing on in the face of great suffering when it seems like there's nothing to live for. As Prior so eloquently puts it at the end of Perestroika, "The Great Work Begins." Maybe I won't move to Canada just yet.



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