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Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2004

Timeless message of divine 'Angels' rings loud and clear


Special to The Japan Times

They've pulled it off again! Almost exactly a year ago the team at tpt (Theatre Project Tokyo), led by the renowned American director Robert Allan Ackerman, got Tokyo theater in 2003 off to a great start with their stunningly moving production of "Bent," cast entirely from the young actors who took part in an experimental workshop Ackerman had run at tpt. Now the director is back at Benisan Pit, tpt's unique theatrical space in downtown Morishita.

News photo
Cho Sang Ha and Naoki Saito in the "Perestroika" part of "Angels in America" (above); Saito and Anna Nakagawa in "Millennium"
News photo

With "Angels in America," the team is again taking up the challenge of a profoundly moving work -- but this time one with a sweep as grand as the focus of "Bent" is personal. Theater-lovers should make every effort to see this production.

This play's accolades alone are impressive. Subtitled "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," it brought its American playwright, Tony Kushner, a Pulitzer Prize in 1993. Following its world premiere in San Francisco in 1991, and subsequent move to Broadway, it became the first play to win a Tony Award in two consecutive years, after being staged there in two separate halves in 1993 and '94. It was also selected as one of the 20 most important plays of the 20th century by London's National Theatre in 2000. And just last month, an TV movie adaptation of the play, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Al Pacino and Meryl Streep, won the Golden Globe for Best Movie/Miniseries Made for Television.

Tpt is staging the play in its two parts -- "Millennium" and "Perestroika" -- on alternate weekday nights, and in its complete form on weekends. I saw a weekend performance, and afterward, far from feeling any strain at having sat through a seven-hour play, all I could do was bask in its glow. It will be a highlight of my theatergoing life.

The play begins with a striking sight: a shabby wooden coffin. It rests in the middle of a desolate gray stage, wonderfully designed by Bobby Wojewodski to represent a run-down warehouse, with electrical wires strung along the walls and a scaffolding tower standing to one side. Long white curtains, bearing prints of angels are draped down alongside the stall seats, creating an ethereal, fairy-tale contrast. At the back of the stage, a metal firedoor is used effectively in this story of separate but interconnected couples and groups. When open, it reveals another small acting space where plots and subplots are played out. When it closes, with a very loud clang, the focus shifts back to the main stage.

Into this bleak space (supposedly somewhere in New York) we see a rabbi enter and go over to the coffin. As he walks slowly around it he mournfully recalls the sad, lonely life of the old Jewish woman whose body lies inside. In the process, he signals the play's political nature as he laments that although the United States is hailed as a melting pot, it is actually a country riven by divisions.

As first impressions go, this could hardly be more different from the first and last time Ackerman directed "Angels" in Japan, in its two parts at the Ginza Saison Theater in 1994 and '95. In the Clinton era of (perhaps misplaced) optimism, the stage was a fantasia of light tubes, crystal angels and shiny steel rods, with stars gleaming in its heavens. The bleakness of the current production similarly reflects the times, but in its sparing use of props such as beds and office desks, and the slightly grotesque, transvestite-style angels who sit atop the tower and deliver insights into the lives below, it also reflects a truly grand theatrical imagination at work.

The story, however, remains the same, being focused on the individual crises of people in New York in 1985-90 -- Mormons and Jews, whites and blacks, rich and poor, powerful and powerless . . . and homosexuals, as the specter of AIDS appears. In "Millennium," despair is the dominant theme as the end of the world looms large. In "Perestroika," the characters begin to seek new ways to face new challenges; to see their lives from different angles and begin grasping at hope.

Importantly, though, the play's five main male characters are gay. Joe (Sohee Park) and Harper (Anna Nakagawa) are a married Mormon couple in a relationship crisis: he is initially in denial of his homosexuality, and she is in the grip of anti-depressants and constant panic attacks. Then there's the gay couple of Louis (Judai Ikeshita), who becomes Joe's first gay partner, and Prior (Naoki Saito), a brief acquaintance of Harper's. They are both wrestling with Prior's diagnosis as HIV-positive.

Finally, we have an actual historical character: Roy M. Cohn (Akira Yamamoto), a rightwing lawyer and longtime Washington insider with close connections to the Nixon and Reagan administrations. Although Cohn is homophobic, he is diagnosed HIV-positive, which forces him to come out of the closet and to call in favors from his political cronies, in the shape of new, life-lengthening medication.

Finally, there's Belize (Bunshou Yanai), a former low-life drag queen and lover of Prior's, with whom the other characters also interact as the story progresses. Ironically, it is Belize who is with the villainous Cohn in his last hours. We see Belize's open-mindedness slowly engendering human warmth in the cold-hearted Cohn.

In this conjunction of opposites, the play holds out a hope that prejudices can be overcome. Overall, in both flashback and fragmentary real-time scenes -- to the intermittent accompaniment of music from gay icons such as Maria Callas, Judy Garland and Billie Holliday -- such confrontations and partial resolutions are at the heart of "Angels in America."

However, Kushner also interweaves the period's factual context, notably that Ronald Reagan's personal prejudice accounted for his minimal response to the emergence of HIV/AIDS in the gay community. Through its incorporation of wider, historical reality, it becomes a work that rises far above individual affairs to encompass political issues founded on intolerance and prejudice that are as relevant as ever.

Even the best of plays can founder on the live stage, but in this particular production, there is no danger of that. Although some of the actors have only been in a handful of productions, all of them shone and sustained the tension under Ackerman's direction, with several addressing the audience directly with confidence and enthusiasm. This is a collective tour de force, but special mention should go to Yamamoto's powerful portrayal of Cohn and the young Saito as Prior. This will surely remain one of the outstanding roles of his career.

This is a production to confirm beyond all doubt your faith in the value of the performing arts -- and one where you will experience Hollywood-scale sensations without a hint of computer graphics. In short, this "Angels in America" is heaven-sent.

"Angels in America": Feb 13-29 at the Benisan Pit Theater, a five-minute walk from Morishita Station on the Toei Shinjuku or Oedo subway lines, or 10-minute walk from JR Ryogoku Station. Tickets for each half from 3 yen,000-6,300 yen; or 10,500 yen for the complete production.


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