Not sure what I was thinking by scheduling three Broadway shows directly on the heels of a long trip to Japan, but I am certain I must have thought it was a good idea at the time. In fact it was a very good idea, but it was a lot to take in with my jet lag addled brain. Luckily the three shows that were on my schedule followed a goldilocks reverse order approach starting with the baby bear production of Once on this Island (90 minutes), moving onto the Mama Bear play of Three Tall Women (1 hour and 45 minutes), and culminating with the Papa Bear of all Papa Bear productions: Angels in America (8 hours in total!). What was interesting to observe was that the three shows, though wildly different in their representations, did share three common themes. They were: death, love, and life stories.
In Once on this Island, death was overtly present via the compelling character that was literally called Death. All sinewy and agile, she prowled around the stage looming over her possible next victim as a constant, scary and physical reminder of the bargain that was made. In Three Tall Women death took the form of a death bed at center stage with a version of the lead character teetering at the precipice of death during the second act. Angels in America introduces death in the form of a lesion, the first tell tale sign that one had been struck by the scourge of AIDS and then uses death as a not so subtle theme through the show’s entirety.
You pretty much can’t do a Broadway show without love and these shows delivered on that. In Once on this Island the show’s main character makes the ultimate sacrifice to demonstrate her love. She offers her life in place of the one she loved. The largesse of this gesture (among many others) was not reciprocated and our winning protagonist gets an unsatisfying resting place. In the story of Three Tall Women love was a tricky subject – love of your spouse, love of your child, and love of oneself were dissected via carefully constructed conversations and some carefully placed monologues. Angels in America – all 8 hours of it – was a whirlwind of emotional love that included confusion and rejection and torment and hurt and hatred and forgiveness and empowerment and physical love. All tied together with power and helplessness and tragedy.
On Life Stories… To quote Hamilton “who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”
Once on This Island is the theatrical representation of a story – a cautionary tale being passed down from generation to generation in a compelling song and dance. This show took place in the Circle in the Square theater and the creators maximized the use of this more intimate setting to transport us all to the island and quickly be swept into the emotional tumult of the story.
In Three Tall Women we get to closely explore one woman’s life through her conversation with two versions of her younger self, one twenty-six the other fifty-two. May we all be so lucky on our deathbed to meet up with our former selves and hash it all out…can you imagine the conversations!!??? There was a bit of peace at the end, but you got the sense our character would be prone to outbursts of agitation even in death.
In Angels in America we were treated to an array of interwoven life stories that snaked in and around each other for the duration. Most of the characters – even the masterful Nathan Lane – played multiple roles. The stark, but brilliantly choreographed staging that spun and popped up and down from the floor made for some powerful story telling of the various narratives. Our eyes were wide and are heads often tilted to the left or the right in thought as we went on this journey. And boy was it ever a journey – for the actors and us.