"Queen of Angels: A tragical comedy or comical tragedy, full of intrigue and plenty of dancing. Angry Scenes! Deceptions! Songs! and Arousals of Love! Demons that fly across the stage with a chorus of naked queers!"
That's the full title of James Carroll Pickett's new play, with music by Jon Cohen, at Highways. It certainly delivers all the excesses that its subtitle promises. Director Philip Littell admirably attempts to provoke the audience beyond the cheap buzz of righteous indignation to a deeper contemplation of the play's subject matter--love and death in the age of AIDS. But this strategy backfires when the staging becomes so alienated from the text that the audience wonders which leads to follow.
Pickett's play adds layer on elegantly constructed layer of narrative to the familiar tale of Orpheus' descent to the underworld. An implacable narrator, the Showman (director Littell), introduces us to our hero, Max (Mike Kelly), a bedridden poet in advancing stages of AIDS dementia. Max sells his story to the Showman for help in rescuing his lover, Tobias, from the bitchy drag Queen of Angels.
Max's tale is interwoven with musical interludes and personal testimony from the all-male chorus of clowns, and a Punch and Judy show performed by comedy duo Keegan & Lloyd.
Pickett, who is HIV positive, has written a story full of passionate and complex emotions--anger at a society that he feels is ignoring the disease that's destroying his world, and both loathing and longing for the decadent pre-AIDS lifestyle that at once liberated and infected him. The action of the play slips seamlessly between past and present, real and imagined events, and the carnival milieu reminds us of the medieval grotesqueness of our plague time.
The extreme theatricality of Littell's production at times serves the text, as in the scenes in the Queen of Angels' eerie lair. Making the Queen (Michael Kearns) appear not live on stage but in a video recording projected on a flowing cloth screen plays up the Queen's super-human evilness and sets off Tobias' and Max's interaction as all the more visceral and moving.
But more often there's an odd sense of detachment between what the words mean and how they're being spoken, which most often manifests itself in the chorus. It's hard to pay attention to the clowns' assertions that "the world as we know it (is) on the brink of the abyss . . . all are innocent, none are spared," as they're writhing in an orgiastic fashion with each other and crawling over banks of seats to fondle the audience.
Littell, with designer Ian Falconer, makes clever use of the small runway-like playing area and a few well chosen set pieces. Falconer's brightly patterned costumes strike the right balance between beauty and absurdity.
Unfortunately, much of this play's urgency is diluted as this production impales itself on its own self-awareness.
"Queen of Angels," Highways, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. Thursdays-Sundays, 8:30 p.m. Ends Oct. 18. $12. (213) 660-8587). Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.