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Monday, October 10, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Angels' Arrives -- Intiman Opener Of `Millennium Approaches' Features A Combination Of Lush Theatrical Settings And Leaves Plenty To Imagination

-------------- THEATER REVIEW --------------

"Angels in America: Part 1, Millennium Approaches," by Tony Kushner. Directed by Warner Shook. Produced by Intiman Theatre, Seattle Center. Plays Tuesdays-Sundays through Nov. 20. 626-0782.

What takes 3 1/2 hours but races along, opens your heart as it invigorates your intellect, and makes you crave a sequel?

In today's theater there is only one answer: "Angels in America," the magnificent Tony Kushner drama that has at last arrived here.

There is good news to report about the local premiere of "Millennium Approaches," the first installment of "Angels in America" to be presented by Intiman Theatre. (Part II, "Perestroika," appears next spring.)

Rest assured that Kushner's cosmological panorama of love and death, betrayal and compassion in fin de siecle America is in good hands at the Intiman.

Enacted lucidly by the entire eight-member cast, and to perfection by several members of it, Warner Shook's staging stays spare, swift and cogent - not the boldest tack, but one that unclutters the flight path for a smooth journey in very high altitudes.

As for the script, it delivers on all the well-publicized promises - if not on first viewing, then in the images and responses that arise the longer you think about it. Theatrical and imaginative

"Millennium Approaches," in fact, holds up beautifully under multiple viewings. It is the product of a lushly theatrical and deeply questing imagination - a rarity in a time when most writers of Kushner's caliber have discounted live theater altogether, or are exploiting only a modicum of its potential for public discourse and dramatic revelation.

Kushner advocates a neo-medieval "Theater of the Fabulous," rife with drag queens and divine messengers, burning books and hallucinatory swings around the cosmos. "Millennium Approaches" boasts all that, plus urgency and hipness and a sardonic wit that vanquishes pretention.

The story concerns an inter-linked chain of characters fighting for survival in an alarmingly chaotic epoch - our own.

Set in the mid-1980s, at the height of Reaganmania and early in the AIDS crisis, the narrative orbits loosely around two troubled couples, one gay, the other ostensibly straight.

The marriage of two Utah-bred Mormons, the distraught Harper (Heather Ehlers) and her conservative lawyer husband Joe (Peter Crook), is collapsing under the weight of repressed homosexuality, Valium abuse, and psychic estrangement. She sees visions of "poison light" and enchanted igloos; he dreams of a niche in the Reagan administration.

Meanwhile, Louis (Douglas Harmsen), a Woody Allenish paralegal, can't find the moral courage to stick by his AIDS-stricken lover, Prior (Kevin Donovan).

Enter the villain

As these tormented, soul-scorched New Yorkers intersect in reality, dream and fantasy, the zestfully demonic Roy Cohn (Laurence Ballard) barges in. A fictional take on the real Cohn, this conniving lawyer and Republican power broker is monstrously funny in Ballard's rat-a-tat performance, but chilling, too. Not even a lethal case of AIDS can de-fang the old viper.

Others enmeshed in the drama are Joe's terse Mormon mother, Hannah (Jeanne Paulsen); Prior's loyal friend and aide-de-camp, Belize (Chris McKinney); the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Paulsen), whose 1953 execution as a Communist spy was partly Cohn's doing; and an imperious angel (Robynn Rodriguez), who has a cameo here but returns in force in "Perestroika."

Thanks to the richness of Kushner's language, and the boldness of his dramaturgy, "Millennium Approaches" reverberates on many levels.

Politically, it indicts Reagan's me-first America as a toxic wasteland of moral decay, intolerance, and callousness, and an extension of 1950s red-baiting.

As a gay polemic, it confronts the horror of AIDS and conjures a diverse group of homosexuals without soft-pedaling their sexuality. (An assignation in Central Park is graphic, though not gratituous.)

Allegorically, the text abounds with references to Mormon doctrine and Old Testament scripture. And theatrically, it incorporates aspects of Brechtian epic drama, Caryl Churchill's time-shifting and high camp.

But don't let all this throw you. As emotional as it is cerebral, "Millennium Approaches" also fits into the tradition of the great American family saga. This extended clan, however, represents an entire society in need of reconciliation and renewal.

The Intiman team handles the play's 26 scenes with sleek efficiency. Designer Michael Olich's simple set pieces whisk on and off, through Japanese-style gliding panels.

Peter Maradudin's skilled lighting enhances moments of terror, and back-washes the angel in an icy, ethereal glow. And Frances Kenny's costumes, except for the impressive angel's gear, blend in quietly.

Shook keeps the focus trained tightly on the actors, who run quite a marathon. Along with Ballard's absorbing shenanigans, there's Paulsen's wonderful Hannah and her equally plausible old rabbi and Ethel.

And Ehlers is flat-out superb, transmitting Harper's visionary intelligence as keenly as her heartbreaking desperation.

Donovan, though not a very ravaged Prior, radiates a quiet valor that's quite touching. McKinney gives us Belize's warmth and swish, and Rodriguez fills her small roles well.

Still sketchy, though, are Harmsen's stiff Louis and Crook's conflicted Joe. They ignite in their scenes together, but need to turn up the heat elsewhere.

In general, this fastidious production could use a sprinkling of New York grittiness, and a few more jolts of shock, even horror. The essayist Walter Benjamin once observed that epic theater produces "astonishment rather than empathy." In its fullest realization, "Millennium Approaches" delivers both.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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