Saturday, July 20, 2013

Theatre For Thought, July 20, 2013

joel fishbane

The last time I saw Tony Kushner’s Angels in America – which has just returned to Toronto for the first time in years - it was at the National Theatre School in Montreal. The graduating class was producing Perestroika, the second part of Kushner’s epic “gay fantasia on national themes”. It was an odd choice for a solo production. Perestroika isn’t so much a sequel as it is a direct continuation of the story; watching it without Part I (called Millennium Approaches) is a lot like watching Acts IV and V of Hamlet without watching Acts I – III.  

Fortunately, people in Toronto don’t have to make that choice. Soulpepper Theatre is producing both parts and running them in repertoire this summer – they’re even offering marathon days that will allow audience members to see both parts back to back. It’s nine hours long and, whatever the merits of the production itself, the show deserves to be seen if only for the sublimely written script.

Anyone who loves theatre owes it to themselves to witness these plays in action

The plays – I’ll collectively call them Angels in America – are probably my favourite modern work and represent some of the finest theatrical writing of the last 50 years. I say that without hyperbole: there have been a lot of well-written plays since 1963 but they all pale in comparison to Kushner’s work in every respect: scope, ambition, humour, humanity. Anyone who loves theatre owes it to themselves to witness these plays in action – or, at the very least, to watch the stellar televised version that was directed by Mike Nichols in 2003.

The plot concerns a wild mix of both fictional and quasi-fictional characters as they witness the rise of AIDS and the abrupt shifting of American values in the 1980s. The fictional characters include Joe, a closeted Mormon; Harper, Joe’s pill-popping wife; and Prior, a man dying of AIDS who realizes he is a prophet with a message he’d rather not deliver. The quasi-fictional characters include the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, put to death for treason in 1953, and Roy Cohn, the ultra-conservative lawyer who died of AIDS in 1986. The plot moves from New York to Heaven with a cinematic structure that calls for split scenes, ghosts, illusions and gender-swapping doubling by the cast. Oh and there’s an Angel. A large Angel with magnificent steel wings.

None of these things are half as interesting as the human story that is depicted over the course of the play.

Most people who discuss Angels in America will either mention the controversial elements (nudity, homosexuality, frank sexual acts) or will simply bore you with the “themes” of the play (Gay rights, corruption, the meaning of law and justice). None of these things are half as interesting as the human story that is depicted over the course of the play. The politics and daring theatricality is certainly nifty but the great glory of the play lies in its depiction of the human heart.

In Closer, playwright Patrick Marber has a character describe the heart as “a fist wrapped in blood”. Kushner’s writing echoes this idea as he weaves lovers, both straight and Gay, in and out of each other’s lives. The strangest people become friends and, as Prior complains, few characters end up being true to their demographic. Kushner’s writing takes few missteps with a plot that can be complex without getting convoluted. The canvas is Shakespearian and with his fictional depiction of the very real Roy Cohn, Kushner created his own Falstaff, which is to say he invented a character that steals every scene he’s in. But Falstaff is always larger than the plays in which he lives while Cohn is a bull which Kushner has tamed to his purpose.

Kushner is the spiritual heir of many theatrical greats – Shaw, O’Neill and Albee, to name the obvious – but with Angels in America he reveals himself to be something that few playwrights will confess to being: an optimist. “This disease will be the end of many of us,” says Prior. “But not nearly all….the world only spins forward.” For all its warnings about human frailty and hypocrisy, Angels in America is ultimately a love story that comes complete with a (relatively) happy ending. It’s not the ending of fairy tales, but it’s still one we can hope for as it represents hope for America in general and humanity in particular.

Angels in America, Part I (Millennium Approaches) and Angels in America, Part II (Perestroika) plays at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. For tickets visit

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