It’s not every day that a little theater in rural Virginia prints the words “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” on its posters. When ShenanArts decided to mount Angels in America, I knew I had to see it, if only to encourage this kind of programming.

I hadn’t ever seen Angels staged, although I have seen the movie and I read it in college.

I’m glad to have had the chance to hear the words spoken by actors. Like most plays, the show is much better on the stage than on the page. In particular, the character of Harper, who irritated me when I read the script and also in the film, was completely magical in this production. Jacquie Patteson brought such honesty and clarity to the role that she sparkled. It’s a tough role to get right–the temptation, I think, is to play Harper as being too childlike or ungrounded. Patteson found some deep truth in Harper, and her journey drew me in.

Clarence Joseph Finn, as Prior Walter, was also a standout. Prior is a great role, and Finn explored its corners, really pushing at the edges of the character. That feels like an odd way to describe an actor’s work, but that’s what he was doing. Every new development in Prior’s journey let Finn show the audience a new perspective on Prior.

The design was an interesting response to the challenges of doing an expansive script in a relatively small space and with not much budget to work with. The set was a bunch of tall four-sided towers that rolled and turned to create new spaces, as well as wheeled platforms that moved down the house aisles, expanding the possible playing spaces into the audience. I knew that they couldn’t safely fly a person in that space, so I was wondering how they were going to create the angel at the end. When the back wall opened out to reveal her, she was on a platform that looked sort of like a crane, with someone behind her moving her wings with long poles, like she was a human puppet. The effect was very powerful.

The lighting design was smart and varied, playing from neutral washes in some of the more realistic scenes to super-saturated contrasts during surreal scenes. They also used lighting to create silhouetted playing spaces within some of the big set tower things. The first time that happened, it was a delightful surprise–without those towers being playable spaces, they would be a serious loss of real estate.

The director, John Fregosi, shared in his note that he’d been dreaming about this production since 1992. He had some very strongly realized ideas; I could tell that he’d given it a lot of thought. One aspect that stood out was that there was a movement chorus (he called them “machinae”), and they were always on stage, observing. They were responding to the action; they weren’t a neutral presence. At times, characters would talk to them like they were characters. At other times, a member of the chorus would put a hand out and touch an actor. I had a hard time with this at times, and yet I also loved it–on the one hand, there were some scenes where I wanted the characters to have privacy together. On the other hand, the presence of this observing chorus highlighted the fact that, in a play, even intimate moments aren’t private. Their observing eyes transformed the proscenium into a nearly theater-of-the-round experience. They also had some gorgeous vocal work–just sung layered tones. It added so much to the show, the kind of thing I would love to be doing but wouldn’t know how to magic it into existence. Lillian Harner was the vocal coach, and I’m curious what other work she’s doing around the area.

This project was an ambitious one, and it gave me a lot to think about. The modern relevance of words written in the early 1990s was chilling and upsetting (says the Shakespeare director). I want us to have made more progress since then, but here we are. They’re doing Part 2 next summer, and I’ll definitely try to catch that.

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