Tuesday, June 9, 2015


Drew Swaine
Photo: Laura Durant
highlights from local critics reviews - (click link at bottom of each review to read complete review)

"Arguably the most impressive new American play of the past twenty five years, Tony Kushner's two part-opus Angels in America won armfuls of awards, including two Tonys for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Kushner's play focuses on the AIDS epidemic...and is full of nuanced and layered, yet seriously flawed characters who allow us to see both the hope and hypocrisy that exists in the world...that requires a small cast able to each pull off multiple parts with assured devotion along with firm, clear direction to let the piece soar, and Damon Dering's Nearly Naked Theatre has taken on that task and succeeded... Dering has managed to achieve an intimate and moving production of this masterpiece....Dealing with stress, strain and the realities of life, and set across a wide range of topics that touch upon religion and politics, Kushner has crafted an interconnected story of two couples in turmoil, the Mormon husband and wife Joe and Harper and the gay couple Louis and Prior. With the subtitle of "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," the play shows the impact of HIV as well as the hypocrisy of the conservative Republicans during the AIDS crisis, via a fictionalized version of the real life, closeted, and ultra-Republican lawyer Roy Cohn, a Joseph McCarthy protégé who ends up contracting HIV and having some connection to the two couples. While it is a long play, it is never boring, and Kushner's characters are fully fleshed out and realistic with plenty of warts, yet they also exhibit many traits that allow us to root for them. Kushner's dialogue crackles and he knows how to write great scenes...that explode with passion and fireworks....Dering has a clear sense in his direction, managing to get solid portrayals from the entire cast. He also has a firm grasp on how the exceptional, mystical moments of the play build out of the ordinary. ...Drew Swaine embodies Prior, the protagonist of the piece, with a strong sense of pride, commitment, and conviction, but also exhibits a soulful vulnerability underneath.Vickie Hall perfectly captures the absolute mess of a woman that Harper is but with a clear portrayal on how fragile she is as well. Mike Largent has a good grasp on Louis..yet he could portray a touch more of the emotional mess that Louis should be and the guilt he feels for leaving Prior. We see the longing he has...but don't quite get the pain he should feel as well. Thomas Hicks is quiet and subdued, which works well for the confused and questioning Joe...As Cohn, Pat Russel isn't quite as biting, malicious, and terrifying as Ron Liebman and F. Murray Abraham, who played the part on Broadway, or even Al Pacino, who appeared in the HBO version. Instead he comes across more as a slimy, quiet, manipulating individual who has sudden outbursts of rage. But it manages to work, for the most part...KatiBelle Collins is superb in several smaller parts, some of which are male roles...Brandi Bigley also plays several parts, all with skill...As Belize,...Raheem De'Angelo infuses the character...with an all knowing power...The small Hormel Theatre stage...allows a heightened sense of intimacy in how Dering stages most of the action just a few feet from the front row of the audience...though the staging of the Angel's arrival is a bit of a letdown and doesn't quite have the impact it should....It's impossible to do justice in a few paragraphs to this play's significance and how it brought the AIDS crisis to the forefront of the arts world, even more so than plays like The Normal Heart did before. It also continued the importance of plays centered on gay characters. If you've seen the play before, you will find much to like and admire in Nearly Naked Theatre's production. If you've never seen this show before, you owe it to yourself to experience it, and Dering is presenting a solid production of Kushner's opus. Also, when I first saw Angels on Broadway back in 1993, Kushner was still writing Part II so we had to wait almost six months before the second part opened to find out how the intricate and mesmerizing story ends. Fortunately for theatregoers in Phoenix, you only have to wait a few days." -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

"Tony Kushner’s two-part “Angels in America” opened in 1991 at the height of the AIDS crisis.  It chronicled what HIV did to the then closeted American gay community and how the initial years of the medical calamity devastated homosexuals...isn’t as fresh or vibrant as it once was in describing a situation changed dramatically by medical advances.  The once edgy play is now a historical glimpse into society’s initial handling of the disease and the subculture....To do the play justice, it must be performed by a superb acting ensemble who make audiences care about the characters and the discoveries each makes about their life.  That’s not the case with the laggardly directed and poorly acted Nearly Naked Theatre production based on the first part’s opening this past weekend....It is impossible for audiences to get into the situations these characters find themselves in or to relate to the diverse situations the play outlines....Director Damon Dering lets the massive work drag through its complex view without giving it any spark.  Most significantly, he doesn’t make individual characters stand out to keep audiences interested.  Some of the problem rests with the actors who are not up to the demands of these characters.  Only Pat Russel’s wacky Roy M. Cohn, a closested gay who is forced to come out, delivers a believable character.  Especially weak are Thomas Hicks’ Joe Pitt, a seemingly normal husband who tries to bury gay feelings and Vickie Hall who plays his mousy wife, Harper....The unit set restricts action with cramped playing areas that must serve multiple locales.  Nearly Naked Theatre tackled a huge challenge with “Angels in America” and fails with the play’s first part." -Chris Curcio, KBAQ (click here to read the complete review)

"Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" is... crazy great theater. And crazy hard to pull off onstage.The intimacy of the piece makes it possible for a small, budget-conscious company like Phoenix's Nearly Naked Theatre to do it justice. But ...director Damon Dering...doesn't quite rise to the occasion...The top issue is the acting, unfortunately. Many of the cast members are inexperienced and don't rise above the level of basic readings of their (multiple) characters.  The most persuasive is Drew Swaine as Prior Walter...Also compelling are Pat Russel as Roy Cohn, a ruthless right-wing lawyer, and KatiBelle Collins...Each of these delivers moments of intense emotion and surprising humor. But it's not enough to overcome the generic, overly whiny renditions of their fellow leads...Dering's direction is equally clumsy. The set consists of a series of cramped platforms, which make for static staging and laborious entrances that often take place (noisily) in the dark while the previous scene is still running. And the play's many surreal moments come and go without visual or emotional surprise...." -Kerry Lengel, Arizona Republic (click here to read the complete review)

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