Due to the challenge of its length, the extravagance of some of its rhetoric and imagery, and its self-consciousness about its status as an Important American Play, we've become used to thinking of Tony Kushner's Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes as a huge, starry spectacle: a perspective compounded by Mike Nichols's imperfect 2003 mini-series adaptation for HBO. Yet it's worth remembering Kushner's remarks in his "Playwright's Note" prefacing Part Two of the saga, "Perestroika": "The play benefits from a pared-down style of presentation, with minimal scenery and scene shifts done rapidly [...,] employing the cast as well as stagehands - which makes for an actor-driven event, as this must be."
That's precisely the approach taken by Małgorzata Bogajewska in her new production of the play at Łódź's Teatr Studyjny. "An actor-driven event" is what this staging, in particular, has to be, since Bogajewska's production is the second Diploma Show for the 2018/2019 graduating contingent of Acting Students at Łódź Film School. This production doesn't rival the first - Mariusz Grzegorzek's thrilling Fever (Pomysłowe Mebelki z Gąbki) - for overall jaw-dropping impact. But it offers some indelible moments and provides the talented cast (several of them familiar from Fever) with multiple opportunities to shine.
Drawing wholesale on diverse American cultural and historical traditions, Kushner's play has a lot on its mind: it attempts to create a fluid myth structure to explore identity politics, religion, economics and the AIDS crisis in the Reaganite '80s, and boasts characters whose garrulousness can be equal parts exciting and exhausting. The text is well known in Poland not only thanks to the HBO series but also Krzysztof Warlikowski's prize-winning Warsaw production of 2007. Presenting only Part One of the play, "Millennium Approaches," Bogajewska's production inevitably feels a bit truncated; a certain amount of context is lost, and the play's humour is sometimes under-served. (Though the punchline to the gag about the Kosciuszko Bridge being "named after a Polack" inevitably gets a reaction here.)
Yet other elements emerge freshly illuminated in this staging. When it comes to representations of desire, Bogajewska is not a director to hold back - as evidenced by her production of Gabriela Zapolska's 1907 play Ich Czworo, in which Gabriela Muskała and Sambor Czarnota shared a riotous table-top sex scene that prompted two shocked patrons to flee the theatre. And Joanna Jaśko-Sroka's spare approach to the design of this Angels doesn't preclude some wonderfully eccentric touches and moments of bold physicality.
Using the deep stage effectively, Bogajewska keeps the proceedings clear and fluid in the scenes of parallel action and dialogue. With a piano ever-present, several sequences are given a delirious nightclub cabaret vibe, with a bald-headed Belize (played by a female cast member, Isabella Dudziak) crooning "Blue Velvet" and "Why Don't You Do Right?" - the latter song brilliantly recontextualised here as a marginalised character's rebuke to the powerful.
Music, in fact, is an important component throughout, the production seemingly seeking to create a soundtrack of '70s and '80s queer-associated artists. Elżbieta Zajko's Harper assesses her marital woes to the strains of Barbra Streisand's "Woman in Love," while, in their shared hallucination, she and Prior (Robert Ratuszny), bond to Queen's "I'm Going Slightly Mad." Sebastian Śmigielski's Man in the Park is garbed like an escapee from Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax" video (Bernard Rose version). More elaborate musical moments - such as an Antarctica bop to "Stayin' Alive" - feel rather forced. But the appearances of the Angel are sensationally effective: spotlighted and sporting Stars and Stripes shorts, Wiktoria Stachowicz's heavenly messenger spreads her wings at the microphone: a punk rock apparition.
There's much to admire in the performances. Kamil Rodek captures the conflicts of the closeted Mormon Joe, his desire and fear startlingly visualised in an unforgettable "wrestling with the angel" moment. Zajko brings both vulnerability and strength to her characterisation of the struggling spouse, retaining her dignity even when kitted out in a bubbly balloon ensemble for the fantasy sequences. Robert Ratuszny's depiction of Prior's physical decline is harrowing, his coughing fits so convincing that they set off contagious bouts in the audience. Ratuszny's scenes with Mateusz Grodecki are intense, and Grodecki finds some surprising sympathetic notes in Louis, the lover who abandons him.
Paweł Głowaty, also the production's choreographer, is exceptional as Roy Cohn, bringing relish to the character's menace, and using voice and posture to evoke age and arrogance in a way that's uncanny for such a young actor. The sensitive Ksenia Tchórzko maximises her appearances as the Rabbi and Hannah, contributing two of the production's most moving moments in the mother/son phone-call scene with Joe - brilliantly staged here to bring the characters into physical proximity that belies their emotional distance - and in the encounter between Cohn and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg.
Without giving too much away, the scene that Bogajewska chooses to bring the evening to a close is surprising yet satisfying, as it offers a gesture towards "Perestroika" and, with particular poignancy for a Polish production, makes this an Angels book-ended by the sound of Jewish voices.
Anioły w Ameryce is currently booking at Teatr Studyjny between 20 - 22 March, 12-14 April and 29 - 30 April. Further information here.
Production images: Filip Szkopiński and Dariusz Pawelec