Burning ANGELS IN AMERICA, Part Two: Perestroika at The Ritz

by Jack Shaw

Both parts of ANGELS IN AMERICA are filled with thoughts and ideas as epic as the play itself. I reviewed Part One on Thursday and found it “electrifying,” while the show last night, Part Two: Perestroika was still “stunning,” it burned with more ideas and points of view. It was “electrifying” but in a different way.

Melissa Rittman and Chris Melohn star in ANGELS IN AMERICA, Part Two: Perestroika, a Collaborative Act Studio production running in repertory with Part One at the Ritz Theatre in Oaklyn NJ through August 28. (Photo credit: Chris Miller)

The Collaborative Act Studio does an excellent job with the two parts alternating, running in repertory over the next couple of weekends. Together both shows run seven hours. That means each show is roughly three hours plus two ten-minute intermissions. Don’t despair. The time goes by quickly and is an experience you won’t forget.

The special effects, the lighting and sound in the Heaven scenes in particular were spectacular. All the fine work of Sound Designer and Technical Director Don Swenson and Lighting Designer Chris Miller, with help of Eric Baker and John Denion on the light and sound board to make the special effects happen. The acting was phenomenal as before and the staging, more art than before, without which this show could have been “unspeakably” boring and depressing with all the talk of dying. The show is far from that–even with a depressing topic headlining it. While Part Two: Perestroika is not as riveting in the same way as the first (after all we’re newbies to the scene) and shocking (well, now we’ve seen it), we are made to listen. This is, after all, what good theatre does. This is where playwright Tony Kushner succeeds, and this performance succeeds most of all.

I was more entertained and affected emotionally by Part One; however, I was entranced and emotionally drained by Part Two’s wonderful words–the poetry of the human race expressed in this art form. This theatre art was superb and the catharsis complete with Part Two. So much so, I had to go home and sleep before writing this. Usually I write relatively soon after I get home, but this I had to sleep on to process all I had witnessed.

Part Two seemed longer than Part One, but the reasons become obvious early on. The audience is prepared, but if discussion and thoughts are not for you… One is about identification and definition asking sophomoric questions of the universe (especially Why?), while Two is about discussion, logic and possible resolution. I’ll leave you to figure that out for yourselves.

You could spend a day recalling the poignant phrases, prophetic contradictions, agonizing beauty of the sad state the human race lives in today. It seems it’s not so much dying that we are afraid of, but rather we don’t want to stop living no matter how unfair it gets. The psychologist in me wants to say that we have all the defense mechanisms to deal with confused, man-made society defining who were are to be and how we are to behave.

What we do with it is conflagration, pure and simple–well, perhaps not so simple. The literal definition of conflagration is an uncontrolled burning that threatens human life, health, property or ecology. That’s life. It burns. Life is a constant threat to our well-being, and there are no firefighters. Fires are also indiscriminate. And, we want to keep living despite how it burns.

If we can’t put out the fire, we tear down the structures or let them burn down to ash. It’s the same in life, but there we can whine, moan, cry or go crazy trying to conform. One character says it for all of us: “unspeakable beauty…that’s something I would like to see,” and she’s “crazy.” We all want to see “unspeakable beauty” and we try to see it in our lifetimes–if we aren’t too busy fighting demons and wrestling with angels. In essence destroying or burning what doesn’t fit our ideal of beauty in life. We should, you know–seek out “unspeakable beauty.” I think that is what Kushner is getting at and forget the trivial attempts we make at trying to create a world without chaos.

We are alienated by a society that’s blind, like a prophet that doesn’t know what to do. But we try. We always try. The AIDS epidemic persists today with some strides made to relieve some of the pain of those afflicted, but the disease is still incurable. Today the situation is still largely ignored unless it affects us or someone we know personally. Ironically, the strides we have made scientifically have made people dismiss the existence of AIDS as just one more terribly unfair aspect of the society. The horrible dilemma provides the perfect background to say life is unfair. This we all know, but many hide behind the mechanisms we create to achieve some semblance of order. We want to care about others, but mostly if they are like us. We are expanding that definition to include others all the time, but Kushner questions if we mean it. Thus, we have ways to control our lives–with racism, egotism, politicism and religism–when we understand what it is just to be alive better than we do now. Interestingly enough, Kushner doesn’t seem to want to burn us at the stake, but forgive us instead.

ANGELS IN AMERICA, Part Two, Perestroika received a much deserved standing ovation, and I think the audience enjoyed it as much as the “stunned” audience of Part One. This audience had already been “stunned,” having seen Part One. With the catharsis complete with Part Two, the audience was paying its respects.

Suggested reading: Electrifying ANGELS IN AMERICA, Part One: Millennium Approaches

ANGELS IN AMERICA, Part Two: Perestroika
by Tony Kushner
Directed by Marjorie Sokoloff
August 18-28, 2011
Collaborative Act Studio
at The Ritz Theatre
915 White Horse Pk
Haddon Township, NJ

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