Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Angels in America
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Jeanie's reviews of Peter Pan and Jeeves Intervenes

Francesca Faridany and
Randy Harrison

Photo by Kevin Berne
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus is often attributed as saying something along the lines of "there is no constant but change." Whether or not words like these ever issued from this man who lived 2500 years ago, Tony Kushner seemed to take up the cry back in 1991 when part one of Angels in America, Millennium Approaches, opened at San Francisco's Eureka Theatre, whose co-artistic director Tony Taccone is now helming the production of both Millennium Approaches and part two, Perestroika, at Berkeley Rep.

From its first moments—when a rabbi delivers a eulogy, a marking of a passage, a transition—to one of its very last lines—"the world only spins forward"—Angels in America never strays far from this theme of impending (and constant) transformation. For Kushner's characters, everything is spinning: Prior Walter (Randy Harrison) has been diagnosed with AIDS, which upends both his life and that of his lover, Louis Ironson (Benjamin T. Ismail). Harper Pitt (Bethany Jillard), despite living in a Valium-induced haze of paranoiac visions, is coming slowly to the realization that her husband Joe (Danny Binstock) is gay (despite his being a Republican Mormon lawyer clerking for a conservative appeals court judge) and their relationship is therefore doomed. Roy Cohn (Stephen Spinella) has also been given (despite his refusal of it) a diagnosis of AIDS, which will turn him from Washington power player into a corpse over the course of nearly eight hours of theatre.

I first saw Angels in America during its run at the Marines Memorial, in the production directed by Mark Wing-Davey, before the "cocktail" approach changed HIV from a death sentence into a more manageable chronic condition. Despite this very welcome change to the AIDS epidemic, Kushner's play still seethes with rage and joy and love and betrayal—all the broad gamut of emotion that comes from the awareness that this life we treasure must ultimately lead us to our own final passages, our own ultimate transitions.

Because the specter of that transformation is present in every moment, Angels in America is able to maintain a dramatic tension over its full length, and its characters can address the largest issues of being human without becoming mawkish or feeling forced.

Director Taccone takes the tension inherent in Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning script and torques it even further, leading us through all the characters' transformations and passages with a swift, but not hurried, pace. I was on the edge of my seat for every moment, as the stakes climbed and the stupendous theatricality of Kushner's play and Berkeley Rep's production (which is technically brilliant, despite some minor issues with the sliding LED panels) filled the Roda Theatre with one startling vision after another.

Though I felt Randy Harrison's portrayal of the WASP queen Prior Walter was at times a bit mannered in Millennium Approaches, he managed to regain a greater sense of naturalism and emotional honesty in Perestroika. Benjamin T. Ismail's Louis is marvelously guilt ridden, and he's especially wonderful in a scene in which he dismisses tolerance as "worthless"—eerily echoing Roy Cohn's insistence that what really matters in life is the level of a person's "clout." (And since homosexuals have "zero clout," how can he be one?)

Speaking of Cohn, Stephen Spinella pinned me in my seat with his portrayal of a man who rivals perhaps only Adolf Hitler as an embodiment of human evil. He inhabits the man who helped send Ethel Rosenberg to the chair, sat at the right hand of Joe McCarthy during the infamous reign of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and helped form the character and legal/political strategies of Donald J. Trump with a lethal combination of charm, intelligence, bile and spittle that is riveting. Spinella, who won the Tony for playing Prior Walter on Broadway over 20 years ago, should be in the running for every award offered by Bay Area theatre organizations. He creates a Cohn that, even if one despises his actions (and what feeling person doesn't?), one can to a certain degree understand his tortured motivations for taking those actions.

Spinella's performance rises to the level of spectacle—which is in perfect alignment with the staging Taccone and his technical team have accomplished here. Takeshi Kata's set is a marvelous expanse of flats and LED panels that fill with imagery to take us everywhere we need to go, from an Antarctic desert to post-earthquake San Francisco to the vaults of heaven. Practical set elements, like beds and chairs and airplane seats, zip on and off on automated wagons, and trap doors provide surprising entrances for scenes realistic and fantastical. And then there's the angel who comes flying in, trailing wisps of stage fog that somehow mirror her winged form. Jennifer Schriever's lighting design is dramatic and bold, without calling overt attention to itself: it supports emotional and dramatic moments rather than trying to be dramatic or emotional. It's a fine line, and Schriever balances on it with nimble grace. Jake Rodriguez and Bray Poor's sound design is also perfectly in tune with every other element of the production. When the angel makes her appearances, we in the audience cower at her arrival nearly as completely as the characters on stage.

Seeing Angels in America is a transformative experience that is about transformative experiences. Given the connections between our current political climate and the issues that dominated the news in the 1980s, it has not lost an ounce of its relevance. No matter what the future holds, or what passages await each of us in life, Tony Kushner's masterpiece will help guide you through them.

Angels in America, through July 22, 2018, in the Roda Theatre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Check Berkeley Rep's website for show times, but matinees are at 1:00p.m. Tickets range from $40-$100, with discounts available for students, seniors, and groups. Tickets are available online at, or by calling the box office at (510) 647-2949.