Angels in America | new theatrePhotos - Bob Seary

The new theatre's Angels in America heralds a series of firsts for me, being my first review for Australian Stage, the first production I have seen at the new theatre (a very happy discovery!), the first time I have seen Tony Kushner's incredible play brought to life onstage, and, unfortunately, the first major technical error I have experienced in a live performance.

Kushner's play is billed as a 'Gay Fantasia on National themes' and Part 1, set in the mid-1980s, outlines two troubled New York couples directly facing the issues of homosexuality, politics, religion and the tragic onset of AIDs throughout America. This much-lauded play blends fantasy with realism and dream-state together with breathtaking adventurousness and originality. It is a highly intelligent, highly demanding work.

There was so much to enjoy in this production, with some highly polished performances, striking design elements and rich moments of pathos and humour. Occasional drops in energy and attack, however, made this production patchy, and marred the sheen of professionalism on what was otherwise a commanding work.

The first half lagged. The opening sequence of projected AIDs related images seemed a cloying and overdone effort to spell out key issues in the play rather than letting the writing speak for itself. The opening monologue was peculiarly difficult to follow, the energy of the actors wandered at times, and there were times when the use of projected images and audio felt cumbersome to the performance. It is possible that this may have been because of the false start to the show: shortly after the play’s opening it was announced that the audio accompanying the projection was faulty, and the audience spent several minutes watching backstage crew wrangle with equipment.

The second half was much stronger. Where in the first half some of the projected images felt overdone, the second half offered a beautifully interwoven combination of images, music and performance. The stage 'magic' called for in Kushner's script was, for me, well realised in the dream sequences and dual scenes running simultaneously, and this was where director Alex Galeazzi's strong vision and skill really came into play.

Strong set design from Brigid Dighton served to create a strong atmosphere without overfilling the stage. The choice of using a large, sprawling silver tree to establish a central axis point worked nicely, with curling spindly branches reaching across the stage to frame the large projection screen.

Standout performances from Angus King (Louis Ironson), Beejan Olfat (Prior Walter / Man in Park) Elaine Hudson (numerous roles, but at her best as Ethel Rosenberg) and Tyran Parke (Joseph Pitt / Prior 1 and the Eskimo) were highlights of the night, with each actor delivering strong, intelligent interpretations of these roles to rival the work of the top venues in Sydney. The energy and command of the script in these performances really rose to the demands of the text. The warmth, humour and pure ‘fabulousness’ of Ray Chong Nee (Belize, Mr Lies) was also a pleasure to watch.

Laurence Coy offered a competent performance as the all-powerful New York wheeler-and-dealer Roy Cohn, but failed to really convey the dynamism of the character. Roy’s torrential, fiery, unstoppable ego was suggested, but was at times hesitant and lacking in punch. Abi Austin (Harper Pitt) as the pill-popping, fragile wife of Morman and closet gay Joseph Pitt was too lucid and direct in her characterisation to effectively convey a floating, house-bound valium addict.

Jan Phegan (Angel, Nurse, Woman in the Bronx) in the role of the Angel also fulfilled the requirements of the role without tearing the house down. I was waiting to experience the Angel in full technicolour, beautiful and terrible, a magnificent guardian of this world, but some of this was lost in Phegan's performance. Her voiceovers heralding the coming of the Angel failed to soar and command, as did her brief appearance as this character onstage.

And this for me really is the crux of the matter - some elements were wonderful, some didn't quite hit home.

Kushner's play is a masterful combination of realism and stylised fantasy which demands great skill in evoking a sense of the ethereal, the legendary and dream-like, as history is about to crack open with the coming of the Angel and the New Millennium. This production faithfully realised the story, and much of the play's style and potent emotion comes through, but without quite exploding onstage. But there is much in this production to impress, with some actors offering powerful performances combined with beautiful design choices that on the whole support the play well.

With this the first production I have seen at the new theatre, I will be champing at the bit to see more of what this terrific independent Sydney venue produces.

new theatre presents
by Tony Kushner

Venue: 542 King Street Newtown
Dates: 24 April – 24 May 2008
Times: Thursday – Saturday @ 8pm, Sunday @ 5pm
Tickets: $27 / $22
Bookings: 1300 306 776 /

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