Angels in America Part I: Millennium Approaches

Downstage Theatre, Wellington

29/09/2007 - 06/10/2007

Production Details

Written by Tony Kushner
Directed by Willem Wassenaar
Designed by Daniel Williams

presents a TOI WHAKAARI: NZ Drama School graduation production

Award winning Almost A Bird Theatre Collective proudly presents Tony Kushner’s masterpiece Angels in America Part I: Millennium Approaches (winner of 1993 Pulitzer Price for best drama and Tony Award for best play) as part of the 2007 graduation season of Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School. Angels in America will be staged at Downstage Theatre.

For the first time in years the graduates of the national drama school showcase their final performance outside their own building and in the industry environment. Catherine Downes: “Angels in America will be an investment in a new generation of theatre makers and an example of how the industry can work together with Toi Whakaari. We are looking forward to being involved with this exciting, relevant new work.”

The epic play Angels in America was performed in Wellington for the last time at Circa Theatre in 1994. This story about a struggling community is still as provoking, funny and humane for today’s audiences as it was back then. Director Willem Wassenaar: “There is no other play than Angels in America that reflects so deeply the huge identity crisis that we as the world, a society and as individuals are experiencing at this very moment.”

Set in New York in the conservative mid 1980s, Angels in America is a rollercoaster collision course for a former drag queen diagnosed with AIDS, his arm chair philosopher lover, a Valium addicted housewife, her gay Mormon husband and a heavenly host of Angels. When even God has abandoned his responsibilities and the Angels are calling out for mortal guidance, the characters are forced to make their own decisions on freedom, sexuality, politics and religion in a universe that is about to change.

“An epic theatrical fever dream… a three-hour cliffhanger that leaves you wanting more.” Variety
“Fiercely humane, gloriously informed, bitchy, compassionate, uncompromised… also falling-down funny…” Newsday

“Willem Wassenaar is without question one of the most daring, most exciting directors in the Capital.” Lynn Freeman in Capital Times

Starring Matt Whelan as Prior, Martyn Wood as Louis, Sophie Roberts as Harper and Dan Musgrove as Joe

A LIMITED ONE WEEK SEASON @ Downstage Theatre / 29 SEP – 6 OCT 2007
Performance Times: Mon – Thu 6.30pm, Fri & Sat 7.30pm and matinee Sat 6 Oct 2pm
Ticket Prices: $39-$20 and $20 Preview Fri 28 Sep
Bookings: 04 801 6946 or  

Matt Whelan
                       Prior Walter and Man in the Park
Martyn Wood                     Louis Ironside
Sophie Roberts                  Harper Pitt
Dan Musgrove                    Joe Pitt and The Eskimo
Anya Tate Manning          Hannah Pitt, Ethel Rosenburg and The Rabbi
Byron Coll                           Roy Cohn
Colleen Davis                      The Angel, Woman in the Bronx and Prior II
Asa Tofete                            Belize and Mr Lies
Maria-Rose MacDonald   Henry, Martin Heller and Prior I

Daniel Williams      Set & Costume
Karl Jenkins            Lighting
Pat McIntosh          Sound

Sophie Roberts                    Producer
Lisa Hawken                        Production Manager
Pat McIntosh                       Stage Management & Sound Operator
Brianne Kerr Publicity     Publicist
Emily Smith                         Design Assistant
Leanne Stevenson              Design Assistant
Paul Tozer                            Lighting Operator   

Theatre ,

3 hrs 30 mins, incl. two intervals

Moving theatre beautifully realised with grace and style

Review by Eleanor Bishop 20th Oct 2007

Angels in America is one of those classic plays. Traversing huge themes, with memorable characters and pure theatricality. It’s a perfect script for The Almost a Bird Collective who has made a name for itself re-envisioning classic scripts. And that’s exactly what they do here.  [more


Make a comment

Modern masterpiece played with panache

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 01st Oct 2007

My theatregoing cup runneth over: enthralling new play at Bats one night, hilarious comedy at Soundings the next, and then part one of a modern American masterpiece performed with a brilliance and panache that bode extremely well for our theatre’s future.

Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School’s 2007 graduating students with their director Willem Wassenaar and designer Daniel Williams (both 2006 Toi Whakaari graduates) are presenting for one week at Downstage the first part of the most exciting play to come out of America in half a century.

Later in the month the rest of the graduating students, under the direction of Tim Spite, are presenting at the school Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia which has been described as a masterpiece, the equal of anything written in the last century.

Kushner’s ‘Gay Fantasia on National Themes’ is best performed with a pared-down style of presentation, with minimal scenery, but he warns the magical effects must still be amazing. The magic in this production is simply produced but still stunning and though three banks of refrigerators loom over the stage, the presentation is pared to the bone.

The refrigerators, which are inventively used, brilliantly underlie the essential themes of the play as well as providing and complementing an unsettling backdrop to the hallucinations, dreams, apparitions, and ancestral ghosts that appear throughout this play despite its basis in a ferocious, if at times, soap opera-ish realism. Also Pat McIntosh’s sound effects add a foreboding eeriness to the production, even though at times the music drowned out the actors.

Angels is an enormous, audacious play with epic aspirations covering the scourge of AIDS, the fall of communism, America’s religious and political Right, premonitions about the new millennium, race, homosexuality, the ineffective liberal Left, all within the context of American political life during the Reagan era and told with a theatrical bravura that is exhilarating. We have yet to see Perestroika (Part 2) in this country.

Millennium Approaches runs for just over three hours (with two intervals) but the nine actors (it was written for eight) make it seem much shorter. They work as a team, everyone giving carefully observed, robust performances: Byron Coll’s bile filled Roy Cohn; Dan Musgrove’s confused Joe, the young Mormon lawyer to Sophie Roberts’ Harper, his Valium popping, fantasizing wife; Martyn Wood’s guilt ridden Louis and Matthew Whelan as his flamboyant lover Prior who is dying of AIDS; and Asalemo Tofete’s outrageous Belize, a nurse, former drag queen and lover of Prior’s.

Taking a number of the smaller roles are: Maria Rose MacDonald as a medieval ancestor of Prior’s, a Justice Department lawyer and a doctor; Colleen Davis as an eighteenth century ancestor of Prior’s, a Bronx vagrant, a real estate agent, and an angel; while Anya Tate-Manning plays Joe’s mother, Ethel Rosenberg’s ghost, and a rabbi.

It is a hugely ambitious project and it has been carried off with a confidence and maturity that is a credit to all concerned. Bravo.


Make a comment

Challenges met at every level

Review by John Smythe 30th Sep 2007

This new and brief opportunity to see Tony Kushner’s 3½ hour 3-act epic Angels in America Part I: Millennium Approaches at Downstage comes just five months after Wellington saw his first major play, A Bright Room Called Day, powerfully produced by Theatre Militia at BATS.

It was on the strength of that first big success that Kushner’s Angels – subtitled ‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’ – was commissioned in 1987, specifically to address the impact of AIDS on the gay community, which it does in the context of right-wing politics (Reagan style), religion (Jewish, Catholic, Mormon) and the reality/ fantasy nexus.

Developed over some years, Part 1: Millennium Approaches premiered in May 1991 at the LA-based Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum and was quickly picked up by Britain’s National Theatre to win international acclaim. Part 2: Perestroika premiered 18 months later, and a year after that was performed at the National in repertoire with a revival of Millennium Approaches.  

Angels in America Part 1 was memorably produced at The Watershed in Auckland then by Circa in 1994 to open their new theatre on Wellington’s waterfront. Now the enduring quality of Kushner’s most celebrated work – or its first part, anyway – is proved by a stunningly clear new production directed by Willem Wassenaar and produced by the Almost A Bird Theatre Collective as a student-driven Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School graduation production.*

The five gay characters and wife of one, whose through-lines give the sprawling saga its spine, are very different from each other. Prior Walter (Matthew Whelan) is an ex drag queen facing the inevitable consequences of having AIDS. His primary partner, Louis Ironson (Martyn Wood, who graduated in 2006), is riddled with Jewish guilt as he wrestles with his inability to witness his lover’s slow demise. Meanwhile practising drag queen Belize (Asalemo Tofete) visits Prior and puts up with Lou’s neurotic raves.

Married Mormon and Republican law clerk Joe Porter Pitt (Dan Musgrove) starts out unable to face his true sexuality but traverses the tortuous route to coming out as his agoraphobic wife Harper (Sophie Roberts) takes refuge in Valium and the hallucinations it induces. His mentor however, the Washington power-broker Roy Cohn (Byron Coll), remains in denial about his homosexuality, even when it’s medically incontrovertible.

All six actors sustain their roles with a credibility and conviction that generate true comedy-of-insight from their frequently bizarre and tragic, yet also quite ordinary, lives. That the corrosive Roy Cohn was real (beginning his rise to power at the right hand of Senator McCarthy) allows the other more fictional yet very real stories to flourish in a larger socio-political context, questioning the moral values of middle America to eviscerating effect.

Whelan plays a man cruising at Central Park’s Bethesda fountain, where Louis seeks a punishing encounter; Tofete doubles as a guide-like character in Harper’s fantasies; Dan Musgrove turns up as an Eskimo in Harper’s version of Antarctica. The remaining twelve roles are taken by three actors who likewise nail the essence of each scene to flesh out Kushner’s compelling appraisal.

Obliged to play male roles only, Maria Rose MacDonald is Roy’s long-suffering doctor, Henry, Roy’s somewhat masochistic yet happy-with-it Justice Department colleague Martin Heller, and – most memorably – an upbeat ancient peasant ancestor from Ireland (I think that was the accent) in the bed-bound Prior’s medicated hallucinations.

Anya Tate-Manning starts the play as the Rabbi who officiates at the funeral of Lou’s mother then comes into her own as Joe’s no-nonsense mother, Hannah, and as Ethel Rosenberg who observes Roy’s final conscience-troubled hours with an almost ebullient dispassion (despite having been executed, with her husband Julius, following their conviction as Soviet spies at the hands of prosecutor Cohn).  

Spanning six roles from a disembodied Voice to a full-bodied Angel, Colleen Davis brings a touching compassion to Prior’s nurse, Emily, contrasts a materialistic Utah realtor with a homeless woman from South Bronx, and plays a bewigged Prior ancestor from the 18th century.

As dynamically directed by 2006 graduate Willem Wassenaar – in an inspired set of stacked refrigerators utilised as beds, urinals, tables, cupboards, entrances and exits, designed by Daniel Williams (another 2006 graduate, who also designed the costumes), superbly lit by Karl Jenkins, with an excellent sound design by Pat McIntosh – the talented ensemble does great justice to Kushner’s modern classic, keeping their audience deeply engaged over three and a half rewarding hours (with two intervals). 

Angels in America Part I: Millennium Approaches is a challenging work to mount. At every level this production is a great credit to the graduates and graduating students involved, Toi Whakaari and the wider theatre community that has embraced it.

* The remaining 14 pending graduates of the acting course will perform in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, directed by Tim Spite, at the Te Whaea Theatre from 19 – 27 October.


Make a comment

Wellingon City Council
Aotearoa Gaming Trust
Creative NZ
Auckland City Council