'Angels in America' faces love and loss


NORTH ADAMS -- A man comes home in the evening knowing he is dying. He comes home to tell his partner. The two men face each other, and the whispered response echoes at the back of the room: oh God -- oh God.

His partner has just learned he will lose the man he loves -- and he may be dying too.

Students in the MCLA Theater Lab will perform Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" in the college's Venable Theater through Saturday night. The Pulitzer-Prize winning play is set across several months in 1985 and 1986 at the height of the AIDS crisis. Kushner tackles ideas including stigma, equality, and sex. Characters face the challenges of their own identity, gender, sexual identity, race, religion and illness.

The three-act play finishes of a semester of work, said assistant director Benjamin Balon, a senior at the college. Students in Laura Standley's Theater Lab course spent much of the semester analyzing Kushner's work.

"We spent a lot of time researching Mormonism, Judaism, all of the religious themes in the play," he said. "I'm sure we've read the text upwards of 30 times."

Students have mounted the production themselves, from designing the set, staging lights and publicizing the show.

The eight main characters come from a wide variety of backgrounds and experience. James Dunn plays Prior Walter, a gay man very sick with AIDS, his body marked by lesions.

Erik Dabrowski plays Joe Pitt, a closeted gay Mormon and clerk at the U.S. Court of Appeals who struggles with his sexual identity. Cortney McLaren plays his wife, Harper, a mentally ill Mormon housewife with a Valium habit, plagued by hallucinations.

Joshua Lapierre plays Roy Cohn, a hot-shot New York City lawyer. Cohn, a closeted homosexual, is diagnosed with AIDS, but repeatedly insists that it is liver cancer. The character is based off of real-life lawyer Roy Cohn.

"I never have played a character based off a real person, so this was an experience I'm glad I had," Lapierre said. "I watched videos of him... I really like his boldness, his bluntness, and the fact that he lets absolutely nothing stand in his way. I respect his strength a lot."

Lapierre also served as costume designer.

"The set is all one color, so we had to think what colors would pop, and we had to stay true to 1980s fashion," he said.

His character's blue pinstripe suit and matching shirts, along with suspenders, was chosen for the "All American" look that Cohn values, he said. He also plays a character in a frilly shirt from Shakespeare and Company, in a vision of Prior Walter's.

Each cast member plays at east two characters, as in other productions of Kushner's piece. Mary Rose Petrozola plays four.

She applies a beard for her role as the rabbi who appears in the first scene.

"It's the most I've had to physically do for a show," she said. "I change my makeup every time I change my costume."

Clarissa Henebury, the play's set designer, said Kushner gave many specific stage directions. Before the appearance of an angel, he explains the specific way plaster should fall from the sky.

"We wanted to keep to those specifics," she said, and to "put our own taste to it."

As Kushner dictates in his play, the set is minimalist.

The cast thought of "a museum or an archival room, where you pull out historical pieces," Henebury said. "We wanted it to look like these people's lives are being pulled out of history. The diorama-like set represents us displaying human nature in a box."

With the side aisles taped off and the audience sitting in the middle, the design pushes the fourth-wall perspective, Henebury said. The audience has no choice but to watch the characters' lives unfold.

If you go ...

What: ‘Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches'

Where: Venable Theater, MCLA, Church Street, North Adams

When: 8 p.m. Thursday to Saturday. April 24, 25 and 26, with an 11:30 a.m. symposium before the matinee at 2 p.m. on April 26.

Admission: $10 general admission, $5 for faculty and staff, and free for students

Information: (413) 662-5123 boxoffice@mcla.edu


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