Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” opened Saturday, with a magnificent all-day run of its two parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika.” The opening was at once joyous and life-affirming, a performance deeply committed to its own history. Under the direction of Tony Taccone, the production pays homage to the influential play’s past while proudly performing for a vastly different contemporary Bay Area landscape.
“Angels” is supercharged with wit and intelligence. It is 1985, and critical young voices are calling for change, be they the kind soul Prior afflicted with AIDS (Randy Harrison), his nebbish partner Louis (Benjamin T. Ismail), the closeted and Mormon Joe Pitt (Danny Binstock) or Joe’s agoraphobic wife Harper (Bethany Jillard). When brought alive on stage, “Angels” is electric. It screams about what it means to live and believe in this country.
Many in the opening night audience were familiar with the play — some had even seen the first production in San Francisco in 1991. In fact, director Taccone was the artistic director of Eureka Theatre when the production was first commissioned there nearly 30 years ago. While the current run on Broadway was just nominated for a Tony, it’s an extraordinary privilege to experience the play in a local context with deep ties to the history of the show.
Watching both parts of “Angels” in a single “marathon day” is exhilarating. Each part runs about 3 ½ hours. It’s a disservice to compare the “Angels” marathon experience to binge-watching a dramatic television series, but it’s a similar sensation. Time melts as the characters become more entangled with each other, and goosebumps abound with every overlapping twist and turn of the characters’ fates.
The production is immersive, but it is also withholding. For a play about deeply human characters, there hangs in the air a distinct lack of intimacy. Given the immense scope and fantasy of the play, the stage design poses an undeniable challenge, but the sparseness of the Berkeley Rep’s design resembled a cavernous, marble tomb, failing to embody all of the set’s potential.
The lengthy run time is carried by a cast studded with big-name actors, including Stephen Spinella, who was the original Prior in the first commission of the play. Spinella’s Roy Cohn was a particular pleasure to watch, his performance exaggerated without being overblown.
Harrison radiates with a boyish, beaming countenance, and it is all the more rewarding knowing he’s dreamt of playing Prior since he read the play at 15 years old. Caldwell Tidicue, known in pop stardom by the moniker Bob the Drag Queen, plays a frank Belize. Francesca Faridany as the Angel is somehow both placid and explosive.
But the show was stolen by Carmen Roman, who plays Joe’s mother, Hannah Pitt. Shifting across a number of ensemble roles, she gives each character a steely, pin-straight presence. She is a Mormon mother, an elderly rabbi, a reactionary Bolshevik and the crooning ghost of Ethel Rosenberg herself. Roman delivers each role’s fiery prophecies with acerbic precision. Of all the play’s demanding and significant moments, she remains an unshakable core.
On the opening Saturday performance, audience members were treated at intermission to the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus singing in the courtyard. Throughout the run, two panels of the iconic AIDS Memorial Quilt will be on display inside the venue. Attending “Angels” is both educational and emotionally compelling, an experience that honors the play’s history and its Bay Area roots. Regardless of whether or not you lived through the era, someone in the space will certainly have — a realization that will cause goosebumps.
“Angels in America” runs through July 22. “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika” will be performed separately on most weekdays and performed together on select “Marathon Days.” Visit tickets.berkeleyrep.org for details and information on student discounts.