If the modality of late modernity a quick switch between unease and over-confidence, then Angels in America has captured that perfectly. First performed in 1991, the intervening years have only drawn out some of the play’s central queries, and in this production by Apocalypse Theatre Company, we can see the further unfolding of the end times of modernity.
Presented in association with the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, Angels in America at The Old Fitz, directed by Dino Dimitriadis down in the depths of Woolloomooloo, provides a darker counterpoint to the flair and fun of the parade up the hill on Oxford Street. Characters ravaged by AIDS, religious dogma and hubris are grappling with the terms of their own demise, and those around them. This is the marginalised underbelly of Ronald Reagan’s America, and as Prior Walter (Ben Gerrard) states at the closing of Part One: Millenium Approaches, “I think something terrible is on the way.”
They are right. While today the AIDS crisis may have passed, there are deeper themes which carry Angels in America to new temporal and geographical shores. Although the wanton destruction of a generation may feel like a thing of the past, the uncertainty about the bright future that was promised has not gone away. This is perhaps most vividly captured in the performance of Catherine Davies, as Hannah Pitt, the Valium dependent wife of closeted Mormon lawyer Harper Pitt (Gus Murray). Her powerful dialogue is able to place her husband’s indecisiveness about his own identity in heightened relief, as he prevaricates and disassembles. Davies’s performance during her episodes is even more lucid, as in the dream sequences we can see her desire to escape all the more clearly in the facial expressions readable in the small setting of the Old Fitz.
To accomplish the distinction between what is real, on stage, and what is imagined, large sliding doors open up to a backlit anteroom, often coloured in blue or white in contrast to the otherwise totally black stage. Out of this set design, by Jeremy Allen, steps a travel agent, played by Joseph Althouse, whose otherworldly delivery acknowledges that these escapist dreams are just that. Althouse doubles as drag queen and nurse Belize, who gives Louis Ironson (Ben Gerrard) a dose of reality on race.
But besides the physical separation between the real and imagined worlds of the script, their combination in front of the audience prompts a renewed focus on a question posed, “imagination can’t make anything new?”
On the one hand, for all our trying, imagination won’t save us from a disease that does not discriminate. On the other hand, the inability or refusal to imagine meant that this disease took many more than it should, as political leaders and medical professionals feared to name what was occurring to their constituents and patients. The construction of an unreal world on the very real stage in front of us, one that we can smell, hear and touch as we wriggle into the confined space, pushes us to wonder whether this is the truth, just rearranged through human imagination.
Such a thought is compelling, as the connections between the play, despite its fantastic moments, and reality do not seem too far off. Ashley Lyons brings the fictional Roy Cohn to a belligerent and cantankerous life, particularly in his jutting hand gestures, and it’s hard not to think about the connections between this figure and the results of the real-life Cohn, who mentored Donald Trump into existence. Unwilling to accept his own reality, Lyons has created a figure that resists the light of truth and its compulsion to progress, much like the current occupant of the White House. Confident in his own superiority even if he is uneasy about the world around him, Lyons is unrelenting.
While a lack of surety may be an overriding theme, this is not a play that lets the world end. Looking over the edge, into the great beyond, the play asks us to imagine what comes next.