AXIS triumphs with 'Angels in America' Risk: Another theater might have fallen flat on its face in an attempt to mount a production as challenging as Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

September 14, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Two-thirds of the way through AXIS Theatre's forceful production of Tony Kushner's 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches," there's a scene depicting the break-up of each of the play's two central couples -- one gay and the other Mormon.

The break-ups are staged simultaneously and, as directed by Brian Klaas, the scene begins with the two men who are about to desert their lovers posed side by side. As the couples argue, their words intersect and overlap. The four participants are very specific individuals, and yet seen in this way, the shards of their relationships come together to form one broad kaleidoscopic picture of heartbreak, disappointment, anger and misunderstanding.

Although there are showier effects -- such as the appearance of the Angel at the end of the evening -- the layered scene of the disintegration of the two romances exemplifies the fine, insightful work AXIS has done with Kushner's epic exploration of politics, religion and relationships in the Reagan era. ("Millennium Approaches," which Klaas has trimmed to three hours, is the first half; part two, "Perestroika," opens Sept. 24.)

Klaas has cast a number of actors who are so right for their roles, they are obvious choices -- and none of them disappoints. There's Randolph Hadaway in the lead role of AIDS-infected ex-drag queen Prior Walter; Mark Bernier, who has a knack for Mephistophelean types, as Red-baiting lawyer Roy Cohn; and sensitive Stephen Antonsen as the repressed homosexual Republican Mormon lawyer who is Cohn's protege.

Then there are choices that appear riskier. For instance, casting anyone in the hodgepodge of roles played by Brown would seem risk, but the range the actress reveals here is truly impressive. Similarly stunning is Patrick Martyn -- a performer who looks as if he were born speaking with a brogue -- in the role of the motor-mouth gay Jewish word processor who walks out on Prior. In fact, one of the only performances that is slightly off-key is Donna Sherman's severe portrayal of the Valium-popping housewife, a character that should be a little more delirious and less intense.

It took chutzpah for minuscule AXIS Theatre to attempt this monumental play. But the achievement proves the chutzpah was justified. As the Angel says at the end of "Millennium Approaches," "The Great Work begins." Bring on "Perestroika."

"Angels in America" continues at AXIS Theatre, 3600 Clipper Mill Road, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 8. After part two, "Perestroika," opens on Sept. 24, each part will be performed on alternating weeks, with both parts performed back-to-back on Oct. 18 and Nov. 1. Tickets to each part are $10 and $14. (The plays contain nudity, profanity and adult situations.) Call 410-243-5237.

Steiner as 'Salesman'

Here's how Action Theater hatched the notion of presenting the one-night-only radio-play version of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" that marks the start of its 11th season on Saturday.

The Baltimore-based troupe has been interested in radio plays for some time, explains artistic director Tony Tsendeas. So when the theater's board suggested a fund-raiser starring local celebrities, "I thought, 'Well, let's do it as a radio play,' " he says. Simple as that.

The choice of "Death of a Salesman" came about because the 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winner is a play Tsendeas has discussed on and off over the years with Marc Steiner. The WJHU talk show host, who will play the lead role of Willy Loman, is one of the fund-raiser's two celebrities. The other is Sun columnist and WMAR-TV host Dan Rodricks, who plays Loman's best friend, Charley.

This isn't the first Action Theater gig for Steiner; he also appeared in the theater's 1992 production of David Mamet's "The Water Engine" which was originally written for radio -- although Action produced Mamet's stage version.

Though the theater company has adapted "Salesman" for radio and will record Saturday's performance, there's no guarantee that it'll be broadcast. Tsendeas, who is directing the production, hopes to entice WJHU to air the play. After that, he says, "Our goal is that we would like to do one radio show a month or bimonthly and broadcast it live. This is a way for us to test the water."

Funds raised from Saturday's event will help finance the troupe's spring tour of "Beckett-Land," the anthology of short plays by Samuel Beckett that Action took to Scotland's Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1997. As a result,the theater received offers to present "Beckett-Land" in a half-dozen Dutch cities in March. In April, Action has been invited to perform at Israel's Tmu-Na theater and at a Beckett Festival at Washington's Scena Theatre.

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