A beautiful sermon for the choir: Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens

Heroes of the AIDS diaspora.

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click to enlarge MANY FACES: Tron Montgomery, seen here as Nick, plays five characters throughout the show. - Marissa Jennings
Marissa Jennings
MANY FACES: Tron Montgomery, seen here as Nick, plays five characters throughout the show.













Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens



Through April 24. $22. The Space at 2106, 2106 W. Main St., Tampa. 813-575-0230.







It’s been about 35 years since the first case of AIDS was diagnosed in the U.S., and American theater writers since that time have responded to the pandemic with several plays of real distinction. There have been works specifically about the disease like The Normal Heart , As Is , Angels in America , and Jeffrey , and others like The Heidi Chronicles and Rent in which AIDS figures prominently without being the main focus.

I look forward to future shows at this nearly new, already-estimable theater.During these same three-and-a-half decades, certain facts about the virus have become well-known: that it strikes men and women both, that it can be passed not only sexually but through needle re-use and blood transfusions, that with the help of certain drugs it no longer has to mean a death sentence. So with the existence already of some theater works of great merit and the general diffusion of information about the disease and its transmission, what remains to be said? Can a play written in 1989 but only now available to local audiences add to our understanding of the terrible health crisis, or do we pretty much know it all by now?






That’s the question that hangs over Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens , the musical by Bill Russell with lovely tunes by Janet Hood. This great-hearted show, currently showing in a fine production at The Space at 2106, wants to tell us that all sorts of people, gay and straight, white and black, male and female have fallen victim to AIDS, and that their lives were as varied — meaning, for the most part, variously luminous — as the lives of any group of humans anywhere. Of course, any play that points out the splendor of what Shakespeare called “the beauty of the earth, the paragon of animals” is bound to be pleasing, but I worry that Elegies preaches to the choir. Surely this musical only confirms what its audience already knows and feels, and which we aren’t in danger of forgetting. Are there any Americans still who have the old prejudices about AIDS as the “gay disease,” a fiery judgment from heaven? No doubt there are, but I seriously doubt they’re the ones making the trek to The Space’s somewhat rudimentary digs in an unfamiliar corner of West Tampa. Which is another way of saying I concurred with this musical even before I saw it, in which case seeing it didn’t add or subtract a whit from my consciousness of its subject.

Are there any Americans still who have the old prejudices about AIDS as the “gay disease,” a fiery judgment from heaven? No doubt there are, but I seriously doubt they’re the ones making the trek to The Space’s somewhat rudimentary digs in an unfamiliar corner of West Tampa.Still, there’s great pleasure in watching a dozen fine actors and singers taking on more than 30 parts, playing Americans and foreigners, New York drug users and an Iowa truepenny, a poorly-spoken homeless man and a courageous nurse. And the stories these characters tell are so succinctly credible we don’t doubt that each might represent a panel on the AIDS Memorial Quilt that reportedly inspired Russell as he penned his tributes. For example, there’s Billy, a young man who fled his despised North Dakota for Greenwich Village, where he contracted the disease after a short time with multiple sex partners; older Francis, who says “I’d lived enough,” and who preferred to go out as “a lonely hen chasing after chicks” than as one-half of an elderly couple; Sally, a prostitute whose father sexually abused her, and who says ruefully, “Figures some guy would give me this; they’ve always given me so much”; and Bertha, a Philadelphia woman who can’t help but notice that Legionnaire’s Disease got a lot more press and medical attention than AIDS did when it first appeared. There are many heroes here, and at least one malicious villain, families who care about their stricken children, and one family that tries to offend the dead with a last betrayal.



The songs, too, are successful: They are wonderfully lyrical and melodic. They’re largely about hope, love and solidarity, and if the content of the play doesn’t offer much that is novel, these songs are real discoveries and a key reason why the production works. I’ve said that the whole large cast is strong, but a few performers stood out for me: Danielle James, Tron Montgomery, Isabel Natera, Jessy Quinones, Jaye Annette Sheldon, Jonathan Thornsberry and A. R. Williams. Co-Artistic Director Jared O’Roark’s tiptop staging places the actors among the audience, as well as in any usable section of the Space’s sizable black box. The clothing of the actors and singers, uncredited in the program, is up-to-date and always just right.



I’m impressed...but unchanged. Still, if The Space can pull off a production as sharp as this one, it can surely do the same with a more innovative script. I look forward to future shows at this nearly new, already-estimable theater. 



Want to know how Mark decides how many stars a show deserves? Check out his thought process.





Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens



Through April 24. $22. The Space at 2106, 2106 W. Main St., Tampa. 813-575-0230.




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