There's an old, awful joke that goes something like this: Q: What's worse than finding a worm in your apple? A: AIDS.
The '80s-era anti-humor popped into my head during the first intermission of Tony Kushner's landmark 1991 play Angels in America: Millennium Approaches. I think it's because Angels is an apocalyptic fantasy that shames us for trivial pursuits and spits angry, inappropriate comedy right into the eye of epic obscenity. The surprising laughs, woven in and around such festive topics as cancer, lesions, and anal bleeding are sobering and plentiful.
Angels was never supposed to be a straightforward polemic on gay rights or the rapid expansion of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, although it is certainly a creation myth of sorts, tracing the emergence of a plague that, in its early days, was ignored by the American government and monied concerns, while it decimated one politically disenfranchised community after another.
The play, filled with sight gags and a shotgun blast of pop-culture references, is still politically current in an American culture heavily shaped by Reaganism. The script is laced with prophetic, eerily specific passages about the future of American politics that could have been written by a time traveler.
Angels doesn't romanticize the moment in time, as some dramatic literature of the era does. But Playhouse on the Square's revival does, somehow, manage to romanticize the work. The production is maybe too subtle for a tragedy subtitled "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes." Having said that, scenic designer Mark Guirguis' set, with its Wagnerian stairway stretching to the heavens, is pretty spectacular. It really is a perfect environment for this sprawling opera of a play.
Although it's imagined on a fantastical scale, taking audiences from cluttered middle-class living rooms to the frozen wastes of Antarctica and beyond, Angels in America is still a fairly intimate, sometimes brutal look into the lives of two men with nothing in common but AIDS. Dave Landis and Jerre Dye are excellent as, respectively, Roy, a despicable, deeply closeted conservative power-broker with a thing for guys, and Prior, an extroverted gay man whose lover (David Foster) can't handle the dehumanizing realities of his terminal illness. There's a lot of Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde, a 19th-century play about how sexual contact transcends class boundaries, built into Angels, and both Roy's and Prior's storylines spin off even more complicated storylines about fear, hypocrisy, mendacity, parenting, mental illness, drug abuse, and how imaginary bogeymen influence the real world.
Liz Sharpe, so good as Jackie, the tough hustler who gets hustled in Hot L Baltimore earlier this season, is even better as Harper, the depressed, Valium-popping wife of Joe (Colin Morgan), a closeted gay Mormon politician. Talk about your triple threats.
This week, audiences have a chance to take in parts one and two of Angels in America in one day when Playhouse on the Square performs Millennium Approaches and Perestroika back-to-back on Sunday, March 24th.
At Playhouse on the Square through March 30th
A Chorus Line took its first bows in 1975, 25 years before the reality television phenomenon took hold, 31 years before American Idol ever trended on Twitter, and 34 years before Glee took the personal/performative crossroads to new pop-culture heights. Considering Michael Bennett's master plan to interview a bunch of dancers, let Marvin Hamlisch turn their stories into songs, then cast the original contributors as themselves, the material would lend itself to a radical, post-reality-TV makeover. I'm not recommending that, but it's hard not to view the original without also considering the copies. Remarkably, with so much scripted reality under the bridge, the material still seems fresh. And the best thing about A Chorus Line today? It only requires the theater's barest essentials. Two boards and passion are enough.
Theatre Memphis' cast features the talents of Christopher Cotten, Shannon Sparks, Guillermo Jemmott Jr., Christopher Hanford, Leah Beth Bolton, Lynden Lewis, and Noelia Warnette-Jones, who all rise to the show's challenges, and Memphis' Ostrander judges need to create a special "Whatever It Is You Just Did, That!" award for Emma Crystal, who's a knockout as Sheila.
Directors typically treat the original production of A Chorus Line like a blueprint. One might long to see some new light through old windows, but it's also interesting to see a show handed down from the source, with the aid of original cast members.
Anyone who has ever been a working actor can tell a dozen stories about crushing rejection and a life under scrutiny. The Hamlisch and Edward Kleban songs, especially "At the Ballet," "Dance: 10, Looks: 3 (Tits and Ass)," and "Nothing," get right at the angsty core of a career performer's predicament and are as clever and multifaceted as anything that ever dripped from Sondheim's pen. Add to all this the dancing — good, glorious, and often (intentionally) awful — and that's entertainment!
At Theatre Memphis through March 30th
As pornos go, Debbie Does Dallas is iconic. It feels strange to type that word. It's a badly acted tale of teenagers whoring their way to Dallas to become professional cheerleaders, and it largely erases the line between exploitation and prostitution. It became a gateway vice and practically a rite-of-passage for young men coming of age in the '80s. What does it say about us, as a culture, that there's enough nostalgia for something degrading to women to warrant derivatives?
But brains are sexy, and director Courtney Oliver's breezily self-aware romp through the icky side of male sexual fantasy is pretty smart stuff.
Forget the original's Debbie Bambi Woods. Cassie Thompson is a walking, talking Barbie doll with a real gift for screwball comedy. And, boy, does she do Debbie right. Thompson's joined by a fearless pep squad of talent: Bussy Gower, Lindsey Roberts, Claire Hayner, and Eileen Peterson. As the show's woodsmen, Nick Lerew, Cary Vaughn, and Richie MacLeod also take care of business. But at 70 minutes, the material feels stretched like the fabric in all those skimpy costumes. Not that I'm complaining about anything.
At Circuit Playhouse through March 24th