Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The KC Four: Angels in America

from the St. Mary College of California production of Angels in America

Under different circumstances, the four plays that HSU hosted during the mid-February Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival would be major theatrical events on the North Coast. In addition to attending the plays, I had the benefit of reading a dozen or so opinions of each from students who reviewed them as part of the festival (I was their guest critic) and also of asking questions and picking up stray facts during the week.

Of the four plays, two were first productions: Xtigone by Nambi E. Kelley, presented by California State University—East Bay, and The Time Machine or Love Among the Eloi by Edward Mast, presented by Ohlone College of suburban San Francisco. I wrote about those two in my North Coast Journal column that comes out this week.

The other two productions were of plays that some readers may have seen: Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and Bridget Carpenter’s Up. I’m posting here about those two. Once the column comes out about the first two, I’ll post it here with additional observations I couldn’t include within my word count.

Several years ago HSU presented both parts of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America in the intimacy of Gist Hall Theatre, directed by John Heckel. It was a great way to experience the intensity of these plays and the richness of Kushner’s language. St. Mary College of California’s production of the first play, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches in the 800-seat Van Duzer Theatre emphasized its epic quality, with a staging that was probably more like its most prominent U.S. productions.

The large but light and quickly shifted sets with the American flag motif, and especially the use of music made it dynamic as well as big. Apart from some issues with articulation, and within the age constraints of college actors, the performances were convincing enough to make the characters and their relationships credible. But it was the overall scope of the show, directed by Reid Davis, that helped to relate these characters to the larger world and the times.

This was a 20th anniversary production. While faculty members at the festival expressed wonder that the play and what prompted it was that long ago, it meant their students hadn’t lived through the time when AIDS was a plague killing thousands and threatening everyone. The St. Mary’s cast and other production members learned about it by working on this play, meeting doctors and nurses who served in AIDS wards, and finally in an hour’s discussion with playwright Tony Kushner. Through seeing the play, many other students at the festival learned about it as well.

As a play reflecting an era, but also as a work of theatre and dramatic literature, Angels in America remains powerful—a great American play.

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