Ethel Rosenberg has returned from the dead to chat with Roy Cohn, the McCarthyist lawyer who helped condemn her to death for treason in the ’50s, and who is dying of AIDS on the floor of his East Side townhouse.
“Aw, f***. Ethel,” he says, without turning to look.
Ethel, in a matronly Jewish accent, smirking: “The s***’s really hit the fan, huh, Roy?”
Meanwhile, a shut-in Brooklyn housewife believes she is in Antarctica – she’s hanging out with Mr. Lies, the tour guide to her own Valium-hallucinated world.
And alone in his bed in Greenwich Village, a young ex-drag queen in death tremors hears an otherworldly rumbling, like a cosmic heartbeat, and a heavenly voice promising earth-shattering events to come.
“Very Steven Spielberg,” he’ll say later, commenting on the visual style of what might be considered the Second Coming.
This is just a snapshot from Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” the now-revered work of American theater which during its production this weekend at Shafer Street Playhouse kept its audience captivated from start to finish – no easy task, given its three-and-a-half hour running time. (And that’s just “Millenium Approaches,” the self-contained Part One; with Part Two, “Perestroika,” it would have been about seven hours.)
The Shafer Alliance Laboratory Theatre (SALT) production, directed by VCU Theatre grad student Phil Vollmer and assistant directed by senior Tommy Callan, was so thick and vivid with movingly-rendered human conflict that its audience never grew restless.
After its premiere in 1991, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play embedded itself firmly in theater repertoire for its masterful thematic scope – from stark realism to hallucinatory magic, from black comedy to holy revelation.
The action takes place in New York City in the mid-’80s, in the early days of the AIDS crisis and the midst of Reagan’s presidency. A young former drag queen named Prior Walter (Colin Chute) finds himself deserted by his four-year lover, Jewish government clerk Louis Ironson (Kyle Raiche), weeks after he develops lesions from Kaposi’s sarcoma.
Harper Pitt (Lauren Hafner) is a Valium-popping housewife and devout Mormon who thinks men with knives are hiding under her furniture – while her husband Joe (Matt Bloch), an up-and-coming Republican, struggles in his marriage and his religion as he grows increasingly unable to deny his homosexuality. Joe is a protégé to Roy Cohn, the real-world red scare propagator who attempts to preserve his reputation by covering up his own AIDS as liver cancer.
In SALT’s production, with sparse, minimal set design, the cast is more than up to the task of drawing us in: When both of the play’s couples take the stage simultaneously during their parallel domestic dissolutions, “Angels” becomes a heart-wrenching canon of misunderstanding, bitterness and recrimination committed in the name of love.
Hafner’s sleepwalking Harper is at once dulled to her fear and defined by it; Chute as Prior navigates fluently between an unshakable idealist armed with drag-queen wit, to the piercing cries of anger and terror that arrive with his health’s collapse.
Perhaps the most striking facet of SALT’s “Angels” was the inclusion of a “movement ensemble,” a fascinating variation on the usual black-clad scene changers: frenzied, ecstatic “behind-the-scenes” guardian angels of the characters and their world, whose gorgeous, ethereal choreography only became noticed by the characters when their consciousness began to fracture.
SALT productions are perhaps unfairly under-recognized by Richmond and VCU audiences as polished, rewarding, risk-taking theatric gems – as evidenced just in recent memory by such productions as Stephen Schwartz’s “Godspell,” Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame,” and Carly Mensch’s “All Hail Hurricane Gordo.”
Productions, which typically run for just one weekend, are carried out on a shoestring budget, calling solely on VCU students as directors, producers and actors.
“I love having the opportunity to fail here,” Vollmer said. “This is my one opportunity where I can do a production like this in such scope, and … if it falls flat on its face, so what? … There’s no theater company that’s at risk, needing to meet its yearly quota.”
“I can risk more than I ever could in any other venue,” he said.
For an idea of what to expect out of VCU Theatre students next, check out this semester’s SALT production schedule. As proudly posted on their website, shows are “always, ALWAYS absolutely FREE.”
SHAFER ALLIANCE LABORATORY THEATRE SPRING 2011 SEASON
Feb. 18-20, 2011
“Video Game Theatre”
Devised and Directed by Aaron Willoughby
Feb. 25-27, 2011
“Henry V” by William Shakespeare
Directed by Anna Kurtz & Kerry McGee
March 9-11, 2011
“The Gnädiges Fräulein” by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Esther Greene
March 25-27, 2011
“Nerve” by Adam Szymkowicz
Directed by Thomas Bell
April 1-3, 2011
“Troy Women” by Karen Hartman
Directed by Sarah Provencal
April 15-17, 2011
“Back of the Throat” by Yassef El Guindi
Directed by Bryan Lamorena
April 22-24, 2011
Written and Directed by Ian Page
April 29-May 1, 2011
“Undergrad Directing Projects”
Supervised by Justin Amellio