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Berkeley’ Rep’s ‘Angels’ righteous and relevant

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From left, Randy Harrison, Caldwell Tidicue, Benjamin T. Ismail and Carmen Roman appear in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s riveting “Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

There’s a poignant sense of déjà vu in the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s new production of “Angels in America.” There’s also an unmistakable feeling of the continued relevance — and vibrant revelations — that drive Tony Kushner’s audacious Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning two-part masterwork, subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.”

Directed by Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone, those revelations come across in the forceful, dramatic, often hilarious and always dazzlingly theatrical staging that opened Saturday in back-to-back performances of “Angel’s” two linked halves, “Millenium Approaches,” followed by “Perestroika.”

The world may have changed since this groundbreaking work premiered at the height of the AIDS epidemic, but the play’s insights into politics, homophobia, race and the uncertain future of the planet still feel immediate.

As it moves from bedrooms to hospital rooms, city streets to Mormon visitor centers, the Antarctic to Heaven, Taccone’s production exerts a singular power to engage, provoke and move audiences.

“Angels” is forever linked to the Bay Area and Taccone, who, with co-director Oskar Eustis, introduced “Millenium Approaches” at the now-defunct Eureka Theatre in 1991. Taccone and Eustis premiered the full, two-play work in Los Angeles in 1992; the American Conservatory Theater staged it in 1994.

Yet “Angels,” which is currently a hit on Broadway, is only now making its Berkeley Rep debut. Taccone’s production, which unfolds on Takeshi Kata’s sleek, ingenious sets, was worth the wait.

“Millenium Approaches” introduces Louis, a gay New Yorker whose lover, Prior Walter, is stricken with AIDS. Unable to cope, Louis embarks on an affair with Joe Pitt, a closeted gay Mormon employed as a Supreme Court clerk. Additional fictional characters — Prior’s nurse, Belize, Joe’s depressed wife, Harper, and strict Mormon mother, Hannah — mingle with historical figures such as lawyer Roy Cohn.

In “Perestroika,” their paths become both dire and more surreal. The ghost of Ethel Rosenberg torments the dying Cohn. The Angel flies in to make Prior a reluctant prophet.

Kushner’s script, so topical in its first San Francisco outing, now itself seems prophetic: American politics grows daily more surreal. The hole in the ozone layer, despite Harper’s watching, hasn’t mended. Roy Cohn was once an advisor to Donald Trump.

The power of “Angels” is in the scope of its themes, both universal and intensely intimate, and the cast inhabits them with specificity.

Benjamin T. Ismail’s Louis and Randy Harrison’s Prior are brilliant.

Stephen Spinella, who created the character of Prior at the Eureka and reprised it on Broadway, burns with furious energy as the vile Cohn.

Danny Binstock exudes torment as the conflicted Joe.

Bethany Jillard’s emphatic Harper and Caldwell Tidicue’s wry Belize bring new dimensions to their characters.

Carmen Roman (Hannah), Francesca Faridany (The Angel) and Lisa Ramirez excel in multiple roles.

When Prior says “The world only spins forward” — one of the play’s most heartening takeaways — he might just as well be talking about this vital cast.

REVIEW
Angels in America
Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley
When: Tuesdays through Sundays; closes July 22
Tickets: $40 to $100
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org
Note: Marathons, with 1 p.m. start for Part One and 7 p.m. for Part Two, are May 12-13, May 19, May 26, June 2, June 9-10, June 16-17, June 22, June 30, July 6-7, July 14, July 21-22.

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