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Produced by Source Theater at the Folger Shakespeare Library Auditorium to June 25
This Is Who We Are/Safe House: Still Looking/Flying Into the Middle
Choreographed by Liz Lerman
At the Lansburgh Theater to June 18
If, for some reason, you didn’t catch the first half of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America last month, it’s time to start kicking yourself. As was true on Broadway, the Pulitzer-winning Millennium Approaches qualifies merely as a warm-up for Angels‘ main event. Perestroika, the riveting conclusion of this two-evening, seven-hour spellbinder, is where Kushner’s writing comes into its own and where his conceptual backflips justify themselves. A theatrical triumph of genuinely majestic proportions, Perestroika can stand by itself, and is necessary viewing even for those who missed the first half.
In fact, if the KenCen’s management were willing, an enterprising travel agent might well make a fortune in the lobby by selling tickets to Minneapolis, the touring company’s next stop. In the meantime, Millennium-challenged viewers can catch up by reading a one-page playbill synopsis that brushes in the plot while introducing Kushner’s protagonists: HIV-positive Prior and his guilt-stricken lover Louis; Valium-popping Harper and her conflicted husband Joe; reprehensible right-wing ideologue Roy M. Cohn; and the various friends, nurses, relatives, and angelic hangers-on who hover around them. (For those who want a more thorough grounding in the first half, the Angels script is in bookstores all over town.)
Millennium ends with what has been described as the theatrical cliffhanger of the century. AIDS-addled Prior—having been abandoned by Louis (who’s dallying elsewhere with Joe)—is astonished when an angel crashes through his bedroom ceiling and says, in metallic tones, “The messenger has arrived.”
In Perestroika, we hear Prior’s perfectly sensible response—“Go away!”—and join him and his compatriots on a peculiar, rapturously comic odyssey that blends such diverse influences as The Wizard of Oz, The Book of Mormon, Das Kapital, and Faust into what amounts to a survival guide for idealists in the age of AIDS. Kushner’s cosmic notions of the origins of the century’s most debilitating plague and his proposed strategems for combating its infection of America’s soul will strike most viewers as at once perfect and perfectly unlikely. No one will dispute, however, the author’s depiction of the effects on human relationships of kindness and cruelty, strength and weakness, courage and cowardice. The sweep of Angels‘ story intersects neatly with the intimacy of the storytelling in Michael Mayer’s production, enhancing both.
That’s partly because the spareness and clean lines that lent a majestic clarity to Millennium have been replaced by an oddly calming visual chaos that grounds Perestroika‘s giddily prophetic rhetoric. Designer David Gallo surrounds the action with detritus-crammed shelves piled high with icons—Liberty’s torch, a Rosebudlike sled, a light-up globe, and so on—effectively placing the play in heaven’s attic (or perhaps, America’s broom closet). With all the trappings of contemporary U.S. culture on display, it’s easy to see the origins of the characters’ flights of fancy—and to appreciate the breadth of the author’s concerns.
It helps that the cast is so strong. Any Millennium-based reservations I had about Philip Earl Johnson’s closeted Joe and Kate Goehring’s manic Harper evaporated on their first entrance here. Both become enormously affecting the moment their characters know where they’re headed. Peter Birkenhead’s cowardly Louis is still guilty liberalism made flesh, perfectly partnering Robert Sella’s AIDS-stricken Prior, who limns Gloria Swanson unforgettably and manages to keep sentiment at bay until the play’s final scene (where it’s entirely called for). Barbara Robertson is all frowning rectitude as Joe’s diminutive Mormon mom (until she experiences a celestial orgasm), while towering Reg Flowers portrays Prior’s flamboyant buddy Belize as a waspishly funny repository of moral strength. Carolyn Swift’s Angel proves capable of devolving into a screaming harpy and recapturing her dignity in a single wingflap. And Jonathan Hadary now inhabits Roy M. Cohn so completely that his gravelly rasp and sunken eyes haunt the play long after Ethel Rosenberg has sung Kaddish for him.
That remarkable, redemptive image—a victim offering prayers for her oppressor—concludes with an equally remarkable joke that sharpens the pathos and neatly encapsulates the playwright’s method. Despite Angels‘ operatic scope and length, there’s a breathtaking economy to its phrasing, whether the author is commenting on angelic technique (“not physics, but ecstatics”) or ruminating on the nature of progress and “the virus of time.” After seeing the play this weekend in close proximity to The Merchant of Venice, I’m struck by how many Kushner-coinages sound as recognizable on first hearing as the Bard’s “pound of flesh” and “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speeches. There’s a notable difference however. Poetic resonance in Perestroika is most often achieved through comedy. It’s a play in which punch lines always pack a wallop, and comic rhythms are forever being bent to the service of epic sensibilities.
Perhaps for that reason, it’s a play of astonishing reach and intimacy.
Joe Banno’s production of The Merchant of Venice works a neat trick on the anti-Semitism that dogs Shakespeare’s most problematic tragedy. Contemporary directors generally labor mightily to defuse the bigotry of the show’s romantic heroes, either by underplaying their nastiness or by turning the vengeful moneylender Shylock into such an out-and-out monster that the best-intentioned person in the world might well hurl epithets in his direction.
Banno’s approach in Source Theater’s production at the Folger Library’s Elizabethan Theater is more direct. He turns the bigots into yuppies, and lets audience members root for the Jew. The opening scene finds money-obsessed corporate types brunching in a red-white-and-blue restaurant where cellular phones beep constantly and the management keeps the Muzak considerably more subdued than the decor. There’s a place at this bourgeois establishment’s best table for an African-American businessman and even a priest, but not for Shylock (Michael Tolaydo), who need only appear in a far corner of the dining room to prompt an awkward silence. His money is valued, but the man himself—skullcapped, bearded, and quietly observant—is a pariah in this world of furiously networking executives.
Things aren’t appreciably different in the outwardly cosmopolitan household where WASP goddess Portia (MaryBeth Wise) reveals her narrowmindedness by being oh-so-politely appalled when a black suitor shows up on her doorstep. It’s for love of this unsavory creature that Bassanio (Kevin Reese) causes Antonio (Michael Jerome Johnson) to borrow money from Shylock, thus imperiling his pound of flesh. And it’s she who later represents Antonio at the trial in which Shylock is outmaneuvered. You can’t help recoiling from her and empathizing with Tolaydo’s put-upon Shylock: Where most productions play the trial scene as welcome comeuppance for an unforgiving miser, at the Folger it seems a monstrous miscarriage of justice.
Banno also worked some eye-opening changes on relationships among the Bard’s yup-and-coming protagonists. It may not have occurred to you that Shylock’s rebellious daughter Jessica (Holly Twyford) might smoke dope with the servants, or that she and her Gentile husband (Paul Takacs) would have marital problems after Shylock was soaked for their wedding dowry. But those and a number of other provocative notions have occured to Banno and company, who delight in upending audience expectations at every possible turn. The result is a snappy, caustic, often very funny updating of the play, not to mention a neat commentary on contemporary attitudes about race.
In fact, the only problem with the interpretation is that it renders the evening’s final scene—which has to do with wedding rings gone astray and mistrust between newlyweds—a trifle anticlimactic. Banno’s found ways to undercut the happy-ending banter, but he can’t entirely get around it, and after what’s gone before, it’s hard to care whether these racist jerks end up with tranquil marriages. Still, the mounting is so wittily effective until then, and such a welcome showcase for Source Theater’s actors and designers (whose work hasn’t looked so professional in ages), that audiences probably won’t mind much.
Curiously, the last professional D.C. mounting of Merchant was in this same Folger space by a company—the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express—that will show up later this month at Source’s 14th Street home. That earlier version also seemed unorthodox, due in part to the youthfulness of SSE’s traveling players. They mostly looked like college kids, so the slightly older Shylock appeared to be a lone, frustrated, nasty townie battling a bunch of obnoxious frat boys. You could, I suppose, line up on either side of that one. Here, there’s no question where your sympathies must lie.
The theatricality of Liz Lerman’s choreography has been its most salient feature for years, but there’s still something revelatory about seeing her modern dance company perform at the Lansburgh Theater. Even those who’ve seen the specific works that Lerman Dance Exchange is performing through Sunday—say, at Glen Echo or in the various black box spaces, meeting halls, and living rooms that have been her primary venues in recent years—will be surprised by the effect that lighting, a proscenium arch, and a bit of distance have on one’s appreciation of the work.
That being the case, it’s appropriate that Lerman begins the first of two programs with a 1993 piece entitled This Is Who We Are. A dance specifically designed to showcase the talents of company members who span perhaps a half-century in age, it also reveals quirky individuals whose skills are a testament to the variety of body types and personalities they represent. The piece begins with a quasi-ceremonial circle of barefoot dancers attired in black, white, and gray street clothes—the sort of image that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen modern dance. But as the circle breaks up, the dancing evolves into duets and trios in which the way that individuals fall trustingly into one another’s arms emphasizes the differences in their dancing styles. At one point, a lanky youth with shoulder-length hair tosses a woman who might easily be his grandmother into the air, and all I could think is that in decades of theatergoing I’d never seen the image before.
The final piece on both programs (I could only see the first before Washington City Paper deadlines) is Flying Into the Middle, a Washington premiere that incorporates witty narration and a danced solo by Lerman in its paean to “the perfect middle”—those who find themselves middle-aged, middle-class, middle children, from the Midwest, and so forth. Call it better than fair-to-middlin’, but less than transcendent. At its best moments—which include a mountain-climbing final image and a haunting, Ingmar Bergmanesque vignette during a cello solo in which Lerman’s leaning figure is mirrored by that of an elderly, white-haired woman—the piece is an eloquent testament to interdependence and the joys of working together.
The intervening piece in Program A, Safe House: Still Looking, is at once more complex and less successful. It explores notions of safety through a number of narrative devices, and is set to a remarkable blues-inspired score by Sweet Honey in the Rock’s Ysaye M. Barnwell. The dancers lurch at, swirl with, and comfort one another, their movements almost always subordinate to spoken anecdotes about everything from installing home security systems to escaping slavery on the Underground Railroad to undergoing a particularly invasive gynecological exam. Though it strikes me as scattered, even this piece is not ineffective. Its blend of content and style is a Lerman trademark—one that’ll only be on display at the Lansburgh through Sunday.