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AXIS Mounts an Intimate Angels; Spotlighters Resurrects a Slow-Draw Doc Holliday

Wings Over America: Randolph Hadaway and Mary Anne Angelella in AXIS' Millenium Approaches, the first part of Tony Kushner's Angels in America

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 9/23/1998

Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches and True Tales of the Old West

Tony Kushner and Barry Price

Tony Kushner's two-part saga about love in the age of AIDS, Angels in America, has enough Tony, Pulitzer, and other awards to its credit to certify it as a contemporary classic. It's such a massive undertaking that any theater that takes it on must have actors capable of memorizing a telephone-book-length script, as well as audiences willing to park their fannies in the seats for an extended stay and then be willing to return for round two.

AXIS Theatre has made a name for itself with bold productions, so it makes sense that the company would take the plunge with the first local small-stage production of Kushner's play. (The Broadway production appeared at both Washington's Kennedy Center and Baltimore's Mechanic Theatre.) Not only is AXIS to be commended for tackling this play, but its solid production proves the company is capable of chewing everything it has bitten off.

Theatergoers familiar with Angels will immediately notice the obvious difference in the stage dynamics between a Broadway-sized mounting and a more intimate small-theater staging. In the Broadway production, a typical two-character scene features the actors isolated on a stage that otherwise has a minimum of props; spotlighted as they discuss the intimate details of their lives, they're surrounded by acres of darkness. On the tiny AXIS stage, there's clearly a more focused, almost claustrophobic feeling to highlighting lovers confronting AIDS, Republican politics, and other frightening matters.

Seeing the action at closer quarters is a trade-off. The big-stage treatment emphasizes epic scale on a stage that has acres of existential emptiness; the small stage makes even the most abstract speeches somehow seem more domestic and realistic.

Although AXIS' production crew makes an admirable attempt to emulate the angelic appearance that marks the smashing finale of Part I, the low ceiling limits the flying capabilities of even the loveliest angel. You miss out on some of the big effects but gain a sense of familiarity with the characters.

As AXIS' three-hour production of Millenium Approaches moves along, it gradually becomes plain that the tight quarters are an advantage when it comes to telling a story in which Kushner constantly crosscuts between two pairs of lovers. By having these short scenes play out with the two couples just feet apart, the connections between their stories are likewise brought home to us. Considering that one couple is gay-male and the other is heterosexual-Mormon, the thematic issues are powerfully immediate. Director Brian Klaas seizes on the dynamics of this situation and deserves praise for making an ambitious and, at times, sprawling play truly cohere.

The actors are extremely well cast. Among the players are Mark Bernier, full of frighteningly gruff mannerisms as the deeply closeted lawyer Roy Cohn; Randolph Hadaway as Prior Walter, a former drag queen dying of AIDS; and Stephen Antonsen as Joe Pitt, a married man whose Mormon faith and Republican credentials are sorely tried as he comes to terms with his homosexuality. The only cast member who disappoints is the usually dependable Donna Sherman as Joe's wife, Harper; her performance is too shrill for a character who is intended to be much more sympathetic.

The next performance of Millenium Approaches, is Oct. 1; it runs on alternating weeks with Angels' second part, Perestroika, which opens Sept. 24 and remains through Nov. 8.

The life and adventures of John H. "Doc" Holliday are captured in a one-man show at the Spotlighters, True Tales of the Old West. Its author and star, Barry Price, has certainly done his homework. Names and dates are rattled off, and Wild West—history buffs will find themselves nodding in recognition.

But the evening quickly becomes redundant, as Holliday details one gunfight after another. Similarly, the device of having Holliday relate his tales to us as he waits for a train in Leadville, Colo. in 1887, makes for a long stretch in the station in the first act.

On the plus side, the evening as a whole is fairly short and does contain plenty of nuggets of interesting information. Price's love for this untamed period makes spending time with his Doc Holliday worthwhile, even though the actor doesn't yet have complete command of his own script. He needs to be a bit smoother and more confident with the material. After all, Doc was quick on the draw, and quick with a verbal shot.

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