Portland Playhouse’s mission statement says they “hold theatre to be a space in which people of all social, economic, racial, sexual and political backgrounds can come together to celebrate the complexity of our shared human experience” so it is no surprise that their winter offering is Angels in America: Millennium Approaches by Tony Kushner. The “Gay Fantasia on National Themes” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 and two Tony Awards for Best Play, was later made into an HBO mini-series and an opera, enjoyed a revival Off-Broadway last year, and now it’s here in Portland.
The play is set in 1985, a time that Kushner identified as one of the “moments in history when the fabric of everyday life unravels, and there is this unstable dynamism that allows for incredible social change in short periods of time.” In Angels in America, that unraveling starts with a diagnosis of AIDS, and continues with the personal, relational and political consequences of the disease on the gay community. As the death toll mounted, apathy, ignorance and homophobia could no longer be tolerated, and America was changed.
Kushner’s epic play was a part of that battle cry in the 90s. While the circumstances of the play now translate on stage as not-so-historical drama, the revolutionary spirit of the play is as relevant today as it was then. The Occupy Wall Street movement is proof that this is another moment in American history when, as Kushner said, “the ground and the sky sort of split apart, and there’s a space… [when] all sorts of people – even people who are passive under the pressure of everyday life in capitalist society – are touched by the spirit of revolution and behave in extraordinary ways.”
This production is directed by the founding Artistic Director of Portland Playhouse, Brian Weaver. The signature visual style of the play: a pared-down set with swift, visible transitions made by the actors is executed beautifully, with design by Daniel Meeker.
8 actors portray 20 characters, and all stand up to the dark humor, vulnerability, and anger at the heart of the play. Wade Mccollum is particularly exquisite as Prior Walter – his sculpted physique carries both the dramatic grace of an ex-drag queen and the torture of an AIDS ridden body.
For its historical significance, current resonance, and high production quality, this play is not to be missed by Portlanders looking for something a little more chewy, a little more supernatural, and a lot more relevant than just another holiday musical this season.
The show runs until December 31 at the World Trade Center (121 SW Salmon St). Also, for the closing night production of Angels there will be a New Year’s Eve Benefit for Our House, a nonprofit organization in Portland that inspires people with HIV/AIDS to live well. Tickets are $100, which includes appetizers, beer, and wine at the post-show celebration. Buy tickets here.