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Seamless production of Angels in America beckons second viewing.

TOPEKA-On Mar. 22 I had the opportunity to see Angels in America: Part 1 Millennium Approaches at Warehouse 414 in Topeka. On Mar. 23 I went back to Warehouse 414 to see it again. After the first amazing performance it seemed almost necessary to reclaim my seat for one last chance at the magic, knowing that after the Sunday show, the cast would take off their costumes and makeup, the crew would fold up papers and turn off lights, and the opportunity to savor these artists, doing this art, would be gone forever.

Ad Astra Theatre Ensemble opened their fifth season with Tony Kushner's iconic and Pulitzer Prize-winning play under the direction of Craig Fisher, President and Creative Director for the Topeka-based grassroots theater group.

The word "seamless" kept threading its way into my thoughts throughout the entire experience. The small, intimate theater inside the warehouse appeared to have created the set itself right out of its own furnishings. Scenic designers Chris and John Grandmontagne transported audience members from the eclectic Topeka gallery and into New York City in the 1980's as easily as opening a door and ushering them to a collection of mismatched chairs.

The costumes, designed by Secily Rees Krumins, some simple, some elaborate, seamlessly transformed actors playing multiple roles. Each performer brought their character or characters to life with undeniable passion and skill.

This was Topeka's first production of Angels in America which weaves together the lives of Joe Pitt, Harper Pitt, Prior Walter, Louis Ironson, Roy Cohn, and Hannah Pitt as they struggle with the devastating crisis of AIDS, love, loyalty, and sexual ethics in the pivotal decade politically dominated by Reaganism and social conservatism.

Austin Swisher played the ultraconservative and closeted gay Mormon, Joe Pitt. Ashley Vaughn played Joe's wife Harper, who takes Valium "in wee fistfuls," and rants neurotically through her own hallucinations. Aaron Senne plays Prior Walter, a flamboyantly gay ex-drag queen who is suffering with AIDS. His seriously ambivalent boyfriend, Louis Ironson, is played by Larry Holland. Walt Boyd fills the role of Roy Cohn ... and fills it till it bursts.

The rest of the cast includes Brian Roster as Belize and Mr. Lies, Linda Boyd as Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, Hannah Pitt, and Ethel Rosenburg, and Ashley Young as Emily (Prior's nurse) and The Angel. Gary Foiles played Martin Heller and the ghost of 13th century Prior Walter aka Prior 1. Shawn Hartzell played Roy's doctor, Henry and 17th century ghost Prior 2. Carol Ries played Sister Ella Chapter and The Woman In The South Bronx. Together they handled the daunting weight and breadth of this piece as if they have been rehearsing together on this very stage for years, instead of weeks.

For this production Ad Astra Theatre Ensemble partnered with Positive Connections of Topeka, who offered HIV/ AIDS information and testing at each performance. Prevention Specialist Beth McKay joined Chris Fisher, Aaron Senne, and Shawn Hartzell on the set for a "Talk Back" on Sunday evening before the final performance. They answered questions regarding changes in the medical, political, and cultural climates that have taken place since the 1980's and discussed the passion and personal significance each felt in bringing this play alive in this community.

Angels was first performed in May 1990 as a workshop production by Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum. What began as a small, intimate ensemble piece and went on to become one of the most widely performed, acclaimed, and influential gay-themed plays in theater history has found its way back to the small intimate stage in Topeka, KS.

Ad Astra Theatre Ensemble's next production will be Hedwig and the Angry Inch, May 15-18 at 7:30pm at Serendipity, 820 N. Kansas Ave. After that, the fifth season will offer 24 Hour Play Festival, Hearts Like Fists, and Evita. For tickets, more information, or volunteer and performing opportunities visit or e-mail adastratheatre@gmail. com.

I highly recommend claiming a seat for these performances, perhaps, for several nights in a row.
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Author:Edgerton, Sue
Publication:Liberty Press
Date:May 1, 2014
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