Southeast Missouri State University students bring 'Angels in America' to life

Thursday, March 26, 2009
KIT DOYLE ~ kdoyle@semissourian.com
Angels in America at Rust Flexible Theatre in Cape Girardeau.

Among it's attributes, Tony Kushner's "Angels in America: The Millennium Approaches" uses eight performers to portray 21 roles. Finances had nothing to do with it; Kushner wanted the same actor to play different characters partly to convey a common theme or characteristic.

The student performers play two, three or four roles, except for sophomore Tyler Gutowsky, who plays only Louis Ironson.

"It's not really hard, switching from character to character," freshman Dominique Thomas said. "But I have to think about it ... get the character in your mind."

Here, the eight performers provide a glimpse into their characters' minds and identify the unifying trait between them.

Thomas Statler, a senior, plays Roy Cohn and Prior II.

Roy Cohn, Statler's core character, is a corrupt lawyer/politician who denies he has AIDS. Cohn is trying to convince Joe WHO to join the Department of Justice so he can pardon Cohn in an ethics trial to disbar him.

Statler's second character, Prior II, is one of Prior's ancestors sent back as a messenger to the dying man.

"They all have some sort of plague," Statler said.

Prior II died of the plague and now Prior and Roy Cohn have "the modern plague," Statler said.

About playing Roy:

"The natural instinct is to play Roy as the devil incarnate," Statler said. He said he has tried to humanize him so the audience can "hate him, love him and hate yourself for loving him."

Dominique Thomas, a sophomore, plays two characters who he says exist only to help people -- Belize, a drag queen-turned-nurse and Prior's ex-boyfriend, and Mr. Lies, Harper's imaginary friend.

"Both characters are out to help someone," Thomas said. "To be there for someone; to support them."

His roles have about equal time onstage and he said he enjoys playing them both. He alternates between Belize and Mr. Lies the entire play, changing from a nurse's uniform to a pinstriped suit.

"Each character is different and has their own state of mind and goals. It's fun," Thomas said.

About Belize:

"He loves Prior." Belize is professional, but jokes with the sick Prior and shows his lasting affection for him. Belize also tries to protect Prior and comfort him as much as possible. "I love his character. I love the principal of his character."

About Mr. Lies:

Mr. Lies appears when Harper is distressed and wants to escape reality. "Whatever she wants to do, he'll do it for her." Harper is often unhappy with her husband, Joe, and "she gets to be happy when she's around him."

Tyler Gutowsky is a sophomore and the sole performer with only one role. He plays Louis Ironson, Prior's boyfriend who leaves him when he gets extremely sick. Louis also helps Joe realize and reveal his homosexuality.

"He is involved with so many different characters in the show," Gutowsky said. "I get mired up with the Rabbi, the nurse, Prior, Joe, Belize. Everyone but Harper, Roy and the Angel."

He said the role of Louis challenges him enough to count for several characters.

"I'm exhausted by the end of the show," Gutowsky said.

Most of the stories in the play involve or are affected by Louis. He does leave Prior when he feels he can no longer handle Prior's sickness.

"I'm just a normal human being, trying to go through life for myself," Gutowsky said of his character. "Everyone makes mistakes."

Kaitlyn Dowling makes her acting debut in a flurry of characters. The sophomore said she has been involved with the dance shows, but "Angels" is her first play. She plays the Angel, Emily the nurse, Sister Ella Chapter and a South Bronx homeless woman.

She said all of her characters play into the idea that humans need to stop being so transient and stay in one place.

"I'm trying to make a distinct difference between them," Dowling said, but added that she hopes "that there's a vague similarity between the characters."

About the Angel:

"I would say the Angel is definitely my core role. She focuses on getting everyone to stay put."

The Angel tells Prior that God abandoned the Kingdom of Heaven because humans would not stop moving and changing. She tells him humans must become stationary again so God will return.

About Sister Ella:

Hannah, Joe's mother, decides to move to New York to help her son after he calls her to tell her he's a homosexual. She commissions Sister Ella to sell her house and Sister Ella tries to make her stay, telling Hannah she entered real estate to encourage people to buy a house and stay where they are.

About Emily the nurse:

"When Emily meets Louis, he is in the state of panic. She tells him not to wander off to the park, to stay and be committed to his lover."

About the homeless woman:

Dowling also plays a homeless woman who directs a lost Hannah to the Mormon house in New York. "Hannah would have wandered if she hadn't met me."

Nathan Pharr, the only freshman in the play, plays Prior Walter, the main character dying of AIDS whose boyfriend cheats on him with a man in Central Park. He also plays that man in Central Park.

"It's just ironic that it's the same actor," Pharr said. "That he runs to escape the situation, but he ends up with the same actor."

About Prior:

He's simultaneously trying to fight the disease and loneliness. Prior represents "rising above and knowing that people are strong and they will keep moving forward."

Emily Johnson, a sophomore, plays the Rabbi, Hannah, Ethel Rosenberg and Dr. Henry.

The Rabbi appears at the beginning for the funeral of Louis's grandmother. He introduces the Jewish culture and provides a light character. Hannah, Joe's mother, is a Mormon in Utah who moves to New York to try to save her son. Ethel Rosenberg was wrongly executed with her husband for espionage and comes back to seek revenge on Roy Cohn, who influenced the judge in the case. Henry is Roy Cohn's doctor.

Johnson said the unifying theme with her characters is a desire to have things perfect.

"All of them kind of have a way they want it to be," Johnson said. They all have a purposeful and direct message.

She said her characters all show the audience "people need to learn to be tolerant and to love everyone for who they are."

About the Rabbi:

He brings an energy and introduces the "Jewish zest of it." He wants to preserve the Jewish tradition in life. He's so warm and so kind. He cares about everyone he talks to.

About Hannah:

She wants her son, Joe, to be married to Harper and have the perfect family. "I think we all know someone who wants everything to be perfect."

About Ethel:

Ethel is about getting revenge and getting justice. She comes back to set life straight and see the conviction of Roy Cohn.

About Henry:

He is trying to get Roy to realize and admit he has AIDS and deal with it.

Laura Gremaud, a senior, plays Joe's wife Harper and Roy Cohn's right-hand man Martin Heller. Both are involved with Joe's decision whether or not to join the justice department in Washington.

"It juxtaposes," Gremaud said. Harper wants Joe to stay, "but I also play the character who is trying to influence him to leave."

About Harper:

Harper is the core role. She's pilled out and has a lot of hallucinations. She lives mostly in a dream world, but comes out to argue with Joe.

About Martin:

It's a fun character to play. Martin is white collar, but really blue collar. He's that go-get-em type of guy, like "I want to be your buddy; come be our guy."

Andrew Kruep, a senior, plays Joe, an Eskimo in Harper's Antarctic fantasy, and Prior I.

"All three of them are very extreme," Kruep said. Other than that, there really isn't a huge connection, he said.

"Prior I and the Eskimo are directly focused on one thing, while Joe is thrown in 40 different," Kruep said.

About Joe:

Joe is just extreme emotion.

About Eskimo:

The Eskimo meets Harper in her Antarctic fantasy. He's an extreme escape, being in Antarctica.

About Prior I:

Prior I is one of Prior's English ancestors. He comes back to warn Prior of a pending message. He's extreme in a low-down cockney kind of way.

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