Angels in America
by Anthony Chase
Subversive Theatre presents both parts of Tony Kushner’s epic drama
This week, Subversive Theatre opens Millenium Approaches, part one of Tony Kushner’s epic masterpiece, Angels in America. Next week they open part two, Perestroika, and will keep the two plays running in repertory through February 16.
Angels in America is a play that captured the spirit of its time and thereby defined a generation. In that regard, it is like Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, or Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles before it. Opening in 1991, it is not necessarily the best play of its time—part two was arguably brought to the stage in haste, and Kushner has continued to revise the script as recently as 2010—but it is an extraordinary and powerful play, and one that has never seen in Buffalo with both parts available to audiences.
The 1990s was a decade of remarkable play writing. August Wilson was still working on his 20th-century play cycle. 1992 saw Jane Wagner’s Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz, and Scott McPherson’s Marvin’s Room. Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia and Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig bowed the following year. Martin McDonagh soared across the Atlantic with Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Cripple of Inishmaan. Edward Albee, who had been dismissed as obsolete and depleted by many critics, roared back into prominence with productions of Three Tall Women and The Play About the Baby appearing in fast succession (a comeback feat that Kushner has yet to approximate).
With its expansive scope, its searing examination of contemporary issues, and with its bold theatricality, Angels in America stood apart. The play would make Tony Kushner the darling of college students in the way that Sam Shepard had been a generation before. The script provided fodder for countless term papers and material for acting classes from coast to coast. For many young people who were in college during the years that bridge the new millennium, Angels in America is the only play they really truly loved. And why wouldn’t they fall in love? It’s a gorgeous play.
It is instructive to recall, of course, that the play was not universally embraced. The subject matter made that inevitable. Some were made nervous by its politics and frank sexuality. In Buffalo, the mainstream paper opined, sight unseen, that enthusiasm for the play seemed “suspiciously exaggerated,” and conventional Studio Arena Theatre only performed part one of the two-play epic (a co-production with Syracuse Stage, which performed both parts). Studio Arena relegated Millennium Approaches to its second stage, and apologized to those audience members, disturbed to hear Ronald Reagan disparaged and shocked by seeing gay people onstage, who walked out. There is a scene in Moises Kaufman’s play, The Laramie Project, in which an acting student from Laramie, Wyoming describes how his disapproving parents see no paradox in their refusal to see him play a gay character in Angels in America, when they had approvingly watched him play a murderer in Macbeth.
I first encountered Angels in America when it was playing at the National Theatre of Great Britain in 1992, previous to its first New York production the following year. On Broadway, I would finally see both parts (and on the same day). I would see both parts together again in the celebrated Toronto production. In England, the idea of a sprawling, two-part epic did not make me think of something leaping forward; rather, I was reminded of the still recent London phenomenon, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, the epic, eight-and-a-half-hour-long adaptation of Charles Dickens’s novel, performed in two parts in 1980. Moments of perestroika are more often the culmination rather than the beginning of changes, and I do see Angels in America in that light.
In the epilogue to Perestroika, Prior Walter, having, in the words of New York Times critic Frank Rich, “passed through a spiritual heaven and five years of physical hell,” stands before the Bethesda Fountain in New York City’s Central Park and addresses the audience directly. A gay man living with AIDS at a time when the prognosis was inevitable death, Prior tells us that he envisions a new age of universal perestroika in which “the world only spins forward.” He predicts a future in which love and “more life” will be the destiny of “each and every one.” In short, he sees a world in which everyone is included, or in which everyone finds acceptance.
Kushner borrowed the concept of perestroika from Mikhail Gorbachev, the last head of the Soviet Union, who used the term to describe an economic policy intended to awaken the Soviet Union from years of stagnation. History is filled with great moments that signal the beginning of perestroika, or the overcoming of backward thinking. An angel metaphorically crashes through the ceiling and then, in the words of Tony Kushner, “great work begins.” Someone discovers fire, or America. Someone paints in perspective or envisions Guernica. The world plods along until someone invents the steam engine, or until somebody writes Oklahoma.
Still, the sort of all-inclusive, universal social awaking that Prior Walter proposes turns out to be elusive. Stigma always seems to be lurking somewhere nearby. It is possible to contemplate the elimination of specific stigmas. Indeed, in the years since Angels in America was written, we have seen diminishing stigma for many categories of people. Nine states have legal same-sex marriage, and a majority of Americans approve of the concept. We currently see a record number of women in Congress. Twenty-two years ago, it would have been difficult to predict that in 2013 we would have an African-American president who was ushered into office largely by non-white, female, and non-heterosexual voters.
To expect that these advances in some fashion signal the arrival of love and more life for each and every one, however, is to ignore the hegemonic power of the idea of a mainstream normality and the infinite ways in which stigma can be assigned. We live in a nation—and a world—that is still enormously divided. It will be interesting to see Subversive Theatre take the play on in this context, all these years later.
BUA did perform a staged reading of Millennium Approaches in 2006. Studio Arena did allow the Syracuse cast to read Perestroika on their stage for one night. But Subversive is putting it all together in Buffalo for the first time.
Angels in America begins by following two troubled couples, one gay and the other ostensibly heterosexual. From this beginning, Kushner spins a sprawling and enormously engaging tale that touches on AIDS, Mormons, depression, heavenly visions, McCarthyism, and ethics of every permutation. A cast of eight must assume numerous personalities, and at times women are called upon to play men. Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg appear as characters. It’s ambitious.
The two plays in Angels in America follow the same characters in a continuous narrative, but can stand alone, and while Subversive is presenting them in rotation, they are staging them as two independent productions. Christopher Standart is directing Millennium Approaches. Christian Brandjes is directing Perestroika. In addition, whereas the two plays were originally staged with the same actors playing the characters, Subversive is using two entirely separate casts. We can only imagine how they’re handling the backstage logistics!
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