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Risk pays off in challenging, rewarding play

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From left, Ryan Miller, Mariam Bernstein and Marina Stephenson Kerr.

DYLAN HEWLETT PHOTO Enlarge Image

From left, Ryan Miller, Mariam Bernstein and Marina Stephenson Kerr.

Angels in America Part 2: Perestroika is a stunning achievement, even if you don't understand half of it.

In its sprawling scope, chaotic structure and epic running time, the conclusion of Tony Kushner's 6 1/2-hour stage saga Gay Fantasia on American Themes is the most demanding piece of theatre this city has ever seen.

Wednesday's opening-night audience attending Winnipeg Jewish Theatre's 3 1/2-hour season-ender was transported from the hell of dying of AIDS to a godless heaven to a merciless America in the late '80s, grappling with an out-of-control gay plague, a looming ecological disaster and a vicious battle between conservatives and liberals for the population's heart and soul.

The challenge of following Kushner's tangled musings about religion, sex and politics is eased by a story that is so fantastically dramatic and told with such an outlandish sense of humour and dark fury that time flies by, relatively.

It is wearying to try to keep up with Kushner's onslaught of language and imagery, but he blesses us with more hearty laughs than most straight-up comedies.

The arrival of a winged creature at the end of part one, Millennium Approaches, which WJT staged a year ago, offered great hope for the world's endless suffering. She drops into the room of failing AIDS victim Prior Walter without any answers as to what ails mankind. It soon becomes apparent she is as confused as humans.

Immediately, Kushner offers a preamble from the oldest living Bolshevik, who demands a new ideology for our "sour little age." A new age is at hand in Perestroika, the Russian term for restructuring, and it can't come quickly enough, as nearly everyone is in pain.

Prior is sick -- perhaps more about being deserted by his lover, Louis, than from AIDS. Louis has taken up with Joe, a Mormon lawyer and protegé of the hissible McCarthyite Roy Cohn, after leaving his wife Harper. Prior and Harper suffer from delusions. AIDS-stricken Cohn is a homosexual-in-denial receiving unwelcome visits from the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (in real life, Cohn campaigned for her to be executed for treason in 1951).

It's nearly impossible to encapsulate the myriad plotlines of Perestroika, but it essentially deals with unlikely combinations of people, natural enemies even, coming together and learning from each other and changing each other. Even the bigoted Cohn takes advice from his acid-tongued nurse Belize, a black ex-drag queen with attitude. As old orders are collapsing, Kushner urges an exploration of possibility and responsibility.

The Angel brings news that God abandoned heaven around the time of the great San Francisco earthquake in 1906, apparently intrigued by the ever-evolving lives of mankind. The ability to change makes humans more interesting to the Creator than his angels. The only way God will return to heaven is if Prior can convince all people to stop moving. Prior is not going to do that, as he interprets the order to mean giving in to AIDS and dying. He wrestles with a black-winged angel, ascends to heaven and struggles to keep moving.

It takes courage for any theatre to stage Angels in America in its entirety, not only because of what it demands in resources, but because it risks the reproach of part of its audience unwilling to look at the world through a gay man's eyes. Kudos to WJT for its dedication to bringing to its stage great art, no matter the consequences.

Director Christopher Brauer's vision is again clear-eyed, even as the action ricochets from reality to dream. His cast is across-the-board superb. Ryan Miller, the star of Millennium Approaches, is back in the role of Prior, consistently convincing, whether castigating weak-willed Louis or debating his place in the heavens with Angel. Another returnee the audience was happy to see is Nicholas Rice, who supplies another delicious, scene-stealing portrayal of Cohn as an unrepentant attorney who refuses to succumb to decency, even with death near. Enjoyment of Perestroika spikes with Cohn/Rice on stage.

Mariam Bernstein shows her admirable versatility as Joe's steely mother Hannah, blunt-talking Bolshevik and Ethel Rosenberg, back from the dead to gloat over Cohn's final moments. Jamie Robinson also reprises his fine turn as Belize, the nurturing but sharp-tongued nurse. Marina Stephenson Kerr is suitably angelic. All the replacements actors -- Jordon Pettle (Louis) Erin McGrath (Harper) and Eric Blais (Joe) -- fit in well.

Prior's closing speech lingers in the mind as he refuses the mantle of heavenly prophet: "We won't die secret deaths anymore. We are not going away. The time has come. The great work begins."

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2013 D3

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Updated on Friday, May 3, 2013 at 9:54 AM CDT: adds fact box

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