THEATER

Theater Review: Peter Marks on Forum Theatre's Skillful 'Millennium Approaches'

Karl Miller as Prior Walter and Alexander Strain as Louis in
Karl Miller as Prior Walter and Alexander Strain as Louis in "Angels in America." (Melissa Blackall Photography)
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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 10, 2009

For its absorbing revival of the sprawling "Angels in America," Forum Theatre chooses a direct route, which also happens in this case to be rewardingly scenic. All 3 hours and 20 minutes of "Millennium Approaches," Part 1 of the Pulitzer Prize-winning tragicomedy, play out on the bare floor of a black-box space in downtown Silver Spring, the backdrop an immense cloth with a vaguely geometric pattern -- perhaps a kind of ghostly, abstract AIDS quilt.

The huge blanket is the only element of director Jeremy Skidmore's sensitively observed production open to interpretation. The rest is straightforward, no-nonsense. The focus is on clean acting, clear intention, with a tasteful, at times almost antiseptic reverence for the fierceness and anguish of Tony Kushner, who wrote this sly, sober and venomous play at an acute point of the AIDS crisis, in the early 1990s.

It is, of course, a big lift for a tiny, hand-to-mouth company such as Forum, which has moved operations this season from the H Street Playhouse in Northeast Washington to Round House Theatre's malleable second stage, an arena that proves a good platform for Forum's aims. Still, "Angels" is not the "Ring Cycle": Most of the scenes in "Millennium Approaches" are two-character conversations in offices and hospital rooms and on park benches, with occasional detours into the fantasies and hallucinations of characters stressed by disease and emotional upheaval.

So it's a more manageable project than you might think, and given the TLC with which the troupe embraces the play, an impressive undertaking. While the company's gentle approach yields excellent work from a fine cadre of actors -- in particular, the sterling Karl Miller, playing the desperately ill, touched-by-an-angel Prior Walter -- it must also be noted that the dramatic electricity doesn't surge here with quite the captivating sizzle of the past.

It just might be that the lightning that struck the astonishing original Broadway production -- staged at a time when the lack of adequate AIDS response was a front-and-center political issue -- can't entirely be reignited. This is in no way to diminish Kushner's achievement: "Watershed" tends to be an overused term in the reviewing business, but with "Angels," the mingling of wit and invention and political passion makes for a unique theatrical tapestry, the sort of event truly earning the status of must-be-seen.

A sustained round of applause, then, for Forum's appetite as well as for the supple execution. What stays with you on this occasion is not so much the ferocity of the playwright's outrage at what he views as Reagan-era callousness: The portrait is of a country giving in to its prejudices rather than ministering to the needs of its citizens, of the homophobia and cynical materialism at work at a time of national emergency. Rather, it's the idea of personal crises captured on an urgently human scale, illuminated most profoundly in the subplot of the stricken Prior and his undependable partner, Louis (Alexander Strain), a man with a lot of brainpower but little staying power.

In a six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon sort of way, "Angels" links their lives to a disparate assortment of major and minor characters in mid-1980s New York City. Most notably, they include Joe Pitt (Daniel Eichner), a closeted law clerk, and his wife Harper (Casie Platt), who is spiraling ever deeper into despair as Joe, via Louis, begins to explore his true nature. Through Prior and Louis, we encounter Belize (Ro Boddie), a wisdom-spewing AIDS nurse and ex-drag queen who figures even more prominently in the upcoming Part 2, "Perestroika," when the patient he's assigned to is Joe's ranting mentor, a Kushneresque conjuring of the real-life lawyer Roy Cohn (Jim Jorgensen).

Skidmore and his cast put a high value on the humor in "Angels," which is a boon to Kushner's most wittily self-aware characters: Boddie's spicy, opinionated Belize, Strain's cerebral Louis, Jennifer Mendenhall's earthy Ethel Rosenberg, who arrives triumphantly from the afterlife to spite Cohn, her erstwhile tormentor, now dying in agony of AIDS. A few performances do not resonate quite as vibrantly: Eichner's Joe, for example, could stand to shed some stolidity. Jorgensen, faced with one of the evening's toughest -- and potentially richest -- roles, lacks the inherently coarse dimension that can make the baiting, snarling Cohn such devilish theatrical fodder.

Platt, on the other hand, confers a childlike delicacy on the fragile Harper, a help in the close-to-precious scenes she has with Harper's imaginary friend, the aptly named Mr. Lies, played by Boddie. And by virtue of his textured portrayal of Prior, who's alternately funny here, and needy, and biting, and disarming, Miller firmly takes hold of the reins of the play, and provides the evening a core of emotional authenticity.

As he lies in bed, waiting in dread for whatever apparition hovers behind the billowing wall of fabric, half a startling epic has come and gone. The second half, "Perestroika," starts performances Oct. 26, and if it ends the journey with anything like the stark authority of this "Millennium," Forum will have cemented even further its reputation as a small company that points at large targets, and hits them.

Angels in America: Millennium Approaches. Directed by Jeremy Skidmore. Set, Tony Cisek; costumes, Heather Lockard and Ivania Stack; sound and music, Matt Nielson; HIV/AIDS consultant, Rose McConnell. With Nanna Ingvarsson. About 3 hours 20 minutes. Through Nov. 22 at Round House Theatre, 8641Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Visit http://www.forumtheatredc.org or http://www.roundhousetheatre.org.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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