‘Angels' shows off student talent, explores human condition

by Kate Sullivan | 11/4/12 11:00pm

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The theater department's mainstage production of
by Yomalis Rosario and Yomalis Rosario / The Dartmouth

This term's production of Tony Kushner's 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning play features the self-contained first part of the production, which is divided into two parts, "Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika."

The College's performance of "Angels in America" was directed with vivid lucidity by award-winning theater professor Carol Dunne, who also serves as the producing artistic director of the New London Barn Playhouse. Dunne previously directed the College's productions of "Hairspray," "Eurydice," "Hair" and "The Rocky Horror Show." Celebrated veteran Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili, a visiting theater professor, served as the show's set designer, and theater professor Laurie Churba Kohn designed the costumes.

Dunne said that theater department chair Dan Kotlowitz, who served as lighting and projection designer, has dreamed of putting the play on at Dartmouth for years.

In spite of Kotlowitz's enthusiasm, however, Dunne said that the play's monstrosity and lofty expectations gave her misgivings about directing it.

"From the moment that we chose this play, I was particularly terrified," Dunne said. "It's the hardest play I've ever directed because of its size. It was kind of like being given the gift of someone else's dream and realizing it opens doors for me as a director."

The show calls into question classic notions of life, love, death, faith and the transformation of identities amidst the plague of HIV/AIDS and the hardship of understanding the disease. Kushner's work seamlessly integrates humor into the darker landscape of the play, and while he forces the stage to accommodate these back-breaking themes, revelations and technological transcendence, the College's production proved to be nothing short of stellar.

The set created the illusion of infinite depth to the stage, featuring a layering of screens on which intermittent large images were projected in the background. Dunne said that the inspiration of using screens came from an installation by contemporary artist Kiki Smith, who manipulated the screens "into different shapes and formations."

"On the other side of a screen, there can be an angel or ghost, a healthy person or sick person," Dunne said. "In every corner in this play there is a spirit of something bigger."

It is hard to award any singular performance with a gold star all involved brought a professional magnetism to their characters. At times, however, words were swallowed in their delivery, especially in the accent-ridden opening monologue of Natalie Salmanowitz '14 as Rabbi Chemelwitz. However, even here, comedic timing was on point and more than made up for any linguistic shortcomings.

Max Hunter '13 brought a larger-than-life grandeur to the gruff and loud Roy Cohn. His performance as the hilarious and also terrifying Cohn was reminiscent of the ever-spastic Ari Gold of "Entourage," though even more monstrous. His opening scene, in which he juggled a bank of phone calls, was especially poignant the discomfort of Joe Pitt, played by Max Gottschall '15, sitting in his office directly translated to the audience.

"Roy, the whole time, knows what he wants and is dead set on achieving that aim," Hunter said. "It's nice to have a singular view. Like a horse with blinders on, he knows what he's going for. It's a ton of fun to play."

Gottschall, playing a closeted Mormon, did not have such a larger-than-life role, but he did bring precision to his character, conveying the paranoia of his secret-keeping in a wonderfully subtle manner.

Gottschall and Hunter also doubled as Prior I and Prior II ancestors of character Prior Walter inducing hearty laughter with their Monty Python-esque garb and banter.

In addition to these strong performances, Talene Monahon '13 gave a radiant, stand-out performance as the valium-addicted Harper Pitt, combining humor with wide-eyed pathos to her pill-popping character. Her opening monologue about her suspicions of a hole in the ozone layer was a perfect blend of spaciness and fierce clarity, a dynamic that showed in all of Monahon's subsequent scenes. This was perhaps best exemplified as she donned a custom-made, banana yellow snowsuit for her Antarctic hallucination with Mr. Lies, played with a calculated sprightliness by Eli Howey '15.

"I've found it fascinating that in the scenes where she's the most crazy, she's the most sane and she makes the most sense," Monahon said. "The audience is her best friend, so it's kind of Shakespearean in that sense."

Monahon, a seasoned veteran of Dartmouth theater productions, said that "Angels in America" has been "hands down" her favorite show while at Dartmouth. Her range of acting talent was further seen through her fantastic doubling as Martin Heller, a fast-talking political crony of Roy Cohn. Although she spoke to her initial challenge of figuring out the character, the end result was uproarious and still balanced. The demanding nature of the character change proved difficult but still fun for Monahon, she said.

Sam Van Wetter '16 was undeniably strong in his complex role of Prior Walter, who serves as a prophet of hope and strength amidst what appears for many in the play as the probable doom of the world. A particularly bold scene featured Van Wetter donning drag in knee-high pleather boots, a leotard and a feather headdress. Andrew McKee 15 played Walter's anxious lover, Louis Ironson. McKee did justice to Louis' constant worrying and sad-sap Jewish guilt, particularly in a hilarious exchange with Belize, played by Maurice Johnson '13. The vivaciousness of their characters' stop-and-go banter was a pleasant reprieve from the seriousness of the adjacent scenes.

The play's storyline naturally provokes an external dialogue about sickness, politics and social issues.

"I hope that it opens up a dialogue about being out' at Dartmouth," Dunne said. "We all, I think, pride on ourselves on the fact on being out is supposedly easier than it was in 1985 when the play was written, but I feel ... [that] identities on campus certainly suffer still in many ways, and I hope that the play opens doors to dialogue."

The actors also noted that the play's heavy political themes seem to parallel many of the issues that America faces today, such as the upcoming election and the recent disaster of Hurricane Sandy.

"In a lot of ways, the political struggle that's implicit within this play is incredibly apropos to today," Gottschall said. "We have showings before and after Election Day, and what's central to my character [Joe] in pursuit of moral fervor ... has awoken him in the desire to be good. ... There's no human gray' allowed, and I think this election sort of encapsulates that."

Dialogues focusing on these themes will be fostered through supplemental programming, including a pre-show symposium titled "AIDS: Then and Now" that was presented prior to Saturday's performance. The talk included doctors and individuals living with HIV/AIDS recounting their own experiences. Ronek Patel, diagnosed with HIV in 2011, discussed his own denial about the possibility of infection and promoted this generation's increased need for awareness.

"This generation's like, You're never going to get it,' but it's a reality," Patel said. "People think they're invincible, but it just takes one time."

A second pre-show talk entitled "AIDS and Its Angels as a Mirror on America" will be presented before the Nov. 8 performance.

"Angels in America" will be performed Nov. 8-11.