Fantasia soars

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Maurice Emmanuel Parent as Belize and Eddie Shields as Prior in Part 2:Perestroika of "Angels in America." (Courtesy Nile Scott Studios)
Maurice Emmanuel Parent as Belize and Eddie Shields as Prior in Part 2:Perestroika of "Angels in America." (Courtesy Nile Scott Studios)

Angels in America, A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Central Square Theater and Bedlam, Cambridge, through October 8.

Forty years after "Angels in America" flew to theater heaven with a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony award, Tony Kushner's prescient "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes" still soars. The two-part phenomenon continues to blaze with timely insights about humanity's need for lasting connections in another era of hate and homophobia. Bedlam artistic director Eric Tucker captured the developing connections and diabolical furor of McCarthy Era disciple Roy Cohn of "Part I: Millenium Approaches" earlier this year at Central Square Theatre with an amazingly fluid staging.

Now Bedlam is teaming with Central Square Theatre once again for the sharply intersecting storylines and angels-busy "Part II: Perestroika," and the result is equally satisfying. If the staging stretches to a formidable four hours (including two intermissions), the individual and ensemble performances are once again both riveting and inspired. In the production card brochure, dramaturg AJ Helman is right to note the lethal similarity between Trump's response to the COVID epidemic and Reagan's prolonged denial of AIDS. At the same time co-dramaturg Ryan Rappaport makes a telling point about the relevance of Kushner's observations in an era of racial injustice, rising anti-Semitism, eroded reproductive rights and escalating anti-trans legislation.

Curiously--at least to this critic—the eventual meeting of diverse angels seems less consequential than the connections and breakups of mortal characters and human efforts at unity. Prior Walter, seen as a kind of modern day Jonah running away from the responsibility of being a prophet, does strike up an unusual friendship with Mormon Hannah Pitt. Black nurse-queen Belize becomes an anchor of help for Prior and tough love truth-telling for overly intellectual Louis Ironson—who has trouble caring for his often agony-ridden lover Prior. At the same time, Louis continues to find himself attracted to judge's clerk Joe Pitt though repelled by the latter's conservative Republican politics and close association with Roy Cohn. By contrast, once closeted Joe declares his love for Louis and admits his sexual preference to his mother. Joe's suffering wife Harper will eventually reject her conflicted husband and embrace the need for self-discovery and personal growth.

Will unity—here seemingly represented by the coming together in 1990 of Prior, Louis, Belize and Hannah on the rim of the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park—finally arrive? Here Prior is like Jonah redeemed.

In the redemptive Bedlam-Central Square Theatre collaboration, Kushner's words light up the stage as hauntingly as the mystical book Aleph (the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet) found under tile in Prior's kitchen. Gifted Eddie Shields finds all of Prior's moral vitality even as he captures his moving fragility and vulnerability. He also catches the dark humor of Prior's arousal when The Angel approaches. Zach Fike Hodges captures Louis' maddening intellectualizing but never loses sight of his emotional conflict. Alexander Platt is a standout portraying Joe as a flawed and often clueless but frequently touching once repressed gay man.

Maurice Emmanuel Parent is a total wonder as Belize—sardonic with racist, disrespectful Roy and supportive with Prior. His entrance in Belize's blingy queen outfit—kudos to costume designer Daniele Tyler Mathews—receives well-deserved cheers. Barlow Adamson makes Cohn a fitting AZT-obsessed serpent as he slithers and rages. Debra Wise —an actress of tremendous rage—captures Hannah's openness with Prior and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg's tantalizing tone with Cohn—particularly with the Yiddish "Tumbalalaika" song. Kari Buckley finds all of Harper's early despair and growing sense of self-worth. Helen Hy-Yuen Swanson has good authority as The Angel.

Kushner has Prior closes the play with the blessing "More Life" and the declaration "The Great Work Begins." At the Central Square Theater, Kushner's own great work continues at full speed in "Perestroika."