A Thinking Man's Star Wars

Dobama's latest play hits home for a galaxy not so far away.

Angels in America, particularly in Dobama Theatre's perfect miniaturization, is imperative viewing for all those who consider themselves to be thinking adults. Experiencing vast doses of political history, apocalyptic cosmology, pop references, mysticism, mythology, and sexual politics, one feels one should be handed a college degree on the way out of the theater. In two parts--Millennium Approaches and Perestroika--that collectively run six hours, it is a great emotional investment that pays dividends in both entertainment and enlightenment.

If you saw the first part, Millennium Approaches, at Dobama nine months ago, you have only seen a rough draft of the present grandeur; this revival is like fruitcake aged in old Kentucky bourbon: richer and stronger. The show is now far more intimate than it was on Broadway and on tour, when the script tended to be buried in special effects and stage brouhahas, where everything flew and rumbled but the programs. Now we are free to bask in the richness of playwright Tony Kushner's rococo plotting and wordplay that ranges from camp Hollywood references to eschatological speculation.

Attempting to relate the Byzantine intrigues of these two interrelated plays is like trying to fit a chorus of angels on the head of a pin. Yiddish Machiavellian Ray Cohn (Senator Joseph McCarthy's former henchman) telephonically performs operatic diatribes of intimidation and evil. There are constant surrealistic juxtapositions of such disparate elements as the title music to The Wizard of Oz, the whir of angel wings, the caterwauling of Bolsheviks and rabbis. Supernatural comings and goings are interspersed throughout: the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg taunting her old tormentor, Cohn; the shades of a long line of ancestors preparing the way for their AIDS-ridden descendant. With a cast of only eight people, Dobama has a work as far-reaching and ambitious as Wagner's "Ring" cycle.

With its Darth Vader-like Ray Cohn, AIDS as a darkness metaphor, male and female princesses, comic nurse in place of the androids, intergalactic angels, and supernatural goings-on, it may be thought of as the thinking man's Star Wars. Indeed, there is the same visceral impact without the space ships and light sabers, and the salvational "force" here is twentieth-century humanism. Its Han Solo is a wry AIDS victim named Prior Walter, who does battle against the death of belief to save the universe; his fellow troopers seek a way to give the world meaning as new-age crusaders against chaos.

Kushner supplied the blueprints for a whirling galaxy. He writes equally well in three modes: as a moral patriarch, a shameless John Waters camp queen, and a Merlinesque surrealist. He evokes Reagan's America as a Hieronymus Bosch hellscape. Worlds collide, conservatives and liberals are at each other's throats, hell and hypocrisy commingle. A Mormon housewife who has lost her husband to an alien sexuality finds herself on an amphetamine cruise in an emotional Antarctica. AIDS, a demon plague, insinuates itself between a happy couple and tests their mettle and moral fiber.

The first play, Millennium Approaches, sends its characters down a greased slide into a moral abyss. The AIDS demon sends Ray Cohn to hell, where he becomes a defense attorney for a discredited God. ("You're as guilty as hell, but don't worry, darling, I'll make something up.")

In part two, Perestroika, we have a Gstterdämmerung sundae, loaded with orgasmic angels, nuts, and fruits. Protagonist Prior climbs a neon ladder to heaven and confronts a tribunal of angels, rejecting their immobility. He declares, "If I can find hope anywhere, that's the best I can do," proclaiming a triumphant humanism out of the ashes of dead philosophies and religions.

Just as Kushner performed a miracle to summon this double fantasia out of our recent social history, Dobama has performed an equal feat to tame this madcap theatrical dragon. They have made their impecunious means a virtue to render this unwieldy epic tight and snappy.

New to the cast is Laura Perrotta's angel, a wild, fiery creature; she has a symmetrical beauty, a Queen Nefertiti as rendered by Leonardo da Vinci. Equalizing Perrotta in his Titian splendor is Scott Plate as Prior, a happy mating of Clifton Webb, Bill Holden, and Noel Coward. As Roy Cohn, Jerry Zafer has grown in the last nine months from a puffed-up accountant to a borscht-belt Mephistopheles. Greasing the wheels with Mormon schmaltz is new cast member Jeanne Task. Growing in stature is Doug Rossi's motormouthed performance, from a nebbish heartthrob into a moral force. Kenn McLaughlin's tortured Mormon husband is a performance of paradoxical beauty, bouncing anger and confusion against an ingratiating Howdy Doody demeanor.

The evening's moral center and comic relief is Tony Sias's quintessential Thelma Ritter male nurse. Imbuing grit and force is Laura Stitt; playing the token heterosexual, she redeems an almost unplayable role.

Set designer Ron Newell, sound designer Walter Mantani, and director Joel Hammer--the show's backstage Holy Trinity--have bypassed efficiency for spit-and-polish inspiration. If Hammer hadn't cut the essential moment in the script where Cohn becomes the Lord's attorney, he could have been christened "Master" rather than just "Prodigy."

Toward the last minutes of the six hours, divided by two evenings, the survivors gather by a fountain, chastened and purified by the loss. Prior, who acts as a Glass Menagerie-type narrator, offers the audience his blessing: "More Life." They, in turn, are humbled and awed by Kushner's baroque wisdom and pray for more theater of this caliber. May his force always be with us.

Angels in America, through December 20, Dobama Theatre, 1846 Coventry Rd., Cleveland Heights, 216-932-6838.

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