It took 15 years, but finally, the other shoe has dropped. North Carolina's troubled, troubling past with Tony Kushner's epic, self-styled "gay fantasia on national themes"—now widely acknowledged as one of major theatrical achievements of the 20th century—reaches a conclusion with the main stage productions of Parts 1 and 2 at PlayMakers Rep.
If these productions denote a historical marker of some sort, and I believe they do, still, it is one markedly different from the milestone that the first full North Carolina production at Charlotte Repertory Theatre achieved—in 1996. That production received national attention when local officials retaliated against it by defunding all arts in Mecklenberg County the following year—some $2.5 million worth of support—after conservatives swept regional elections the following fall.
The extreme always seems to make an impression. Though Charlotte Rep continued pursuing shows like Six Degrees of Separation, which were similarly protested by conservatives at the time, a number of other companies in the state quietly shifted their seasons away from controversial fare. One group replaced Alan Bowne's dystopian, futuristic AIDS metaphor, Beirut, with the considerably less controversial dinner theater smash, Tony n' Tina's Wedding.
To be fair, a year and a half later, PlayMakers Rep would be the first in the region to stage Gross Indecencies: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. Three years later the company mounted The Laramie Project. But nine years would pass before any company in the Triangle would touch Kushner's epic. Duke Theater Studies gingerly staged a small, one-weekend run of Angels Part 1 in 2006, but it would take Theatre in the Park—a long-lived Raleigh venue not always associated with the most cutting-edge of fare—to give Angels its first full regional production in 2008.
Perhaps that successful production—and the total lack of ensuing political repercussions—was needed to prove that the show could be pursued as something other than an extinction-level event.
Whatever the reason, PlayMakers Rep now officially brings up the rear in these productions of Parts 1 and 2. After the two earlier, commendable productions—directed by Jeff Storer at Duke and Adam Twiss at Theatre in the Park—PlayMakers' current version not only has to demonstrate its traditionally superior production values in setting, costume, lighting and sound design. It needs to show regional playgoers something they haven't already seen.
We have a split decision, but one along lines that still come as something of a surprise. For starters, we recommend against viewing this work as a one-day marathon during the Saturdays in its run. Topping an afternoon matinee off with an evening performance that doesn't conclude until well after 11 p.m. is a challenge even the most theatrically dedicated should find imposing.
Given PlayMakers' professional contacts and company of performers, we anticipated performances that would challenge the achievements of past productions—and we were certainly not disappointed. Visiting actor Matthew Carlson ached here as an increasingly bewildered Prior Walter, the young New Yorker who contracts a still mysterious disease in the fall of 1985. Though his moments in partial drag never truly convinced—only in psychologically altered scenes where Prior approaches the "threshold of revelation"—that convention worked as a revealing backstage take on a gay man slowly being taken apart by disease.
But well into the interior of Millennium, a number of actors seemed to work their way into characters instead of clearly establishing them at first. I assume that guest director Brendon Fox, mindful of a nearly seven-hour landscape to be filled, urged restraint on a number of ensemble members, particularly in the early hours.
It's true that one doesn't want to peak too soon in a marathon, but too much restraint for too long has equally undesirable effects. I left Millennium not yet convinced that a number of actors had fleshed out their roles to the degree their predecessors had—and pondered if they were ever going to. Fortunately, actor after actor, including Marianne Miller as Harper Pitt, Jeffrey Meanza as Prior's lover Louis, Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Roy Cohn and even Carlson as Prior, grew more dimensional in Perestroika. They joined notable readings by Avery Glymph as nurse Belize, Christian Conn's torn Joe Pitt and Kathryn Hunter-Williams' delectable Angel.
The problem I didn't anticipate encountering in this production? Timing. When the casket of Louis' grandmother was hastily (but effectively) dumped into her mid-stage grave at the end of the first sequence, that foreshadowed troubles to come. On the rushed schedule director Fox pursued, scene after scene in Millennium Approaches was simply amputated on the last line, with inadequate time for closure or response. When E.M. Forster said, "A work of art is never finished. It is merely abandoned," this isn't what he had in mind.
In fairness, perhaps a different timetable is in effect when the company isn't desperately trying to finish a Part 1 matinee before the audience shows up that night for Part 2. I'll never know the answer to that one, but I suggest you find out.