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Restorative Fantasy

Stage: Angels in America sheds a sharp, profoundly moving and vastly entertaining light on the current state of global chaos

Tasteless jokes and corrupt politics are nothing new to Toronto audiences. Of late we have been fed a glutton’s buffet of daily treats thanks to federal, provincial and municipal misdemeanours, ranging from shady senatorial expense claims by a “no-nonsense” conservative government to power plant closures and a gravy train-stopping “crack”down by one rather “high” and mighty mayor who took his own sweet time taking the elevator down to see the Pride flag raised. Isn’t all of this only supposed to happen south of the border?

When Albert Schultz, artistic director of the acclaimed Soulpepper repertory company, speaks of recent Canadian and Toronto political movements he reaches theatrical heights that lend our sacred national identity a rather farcical tone. Schultz says that “unexamined knee-jerk ideologies have established an absolute buffoon” as our butter-sculpted mayor. Current cracks in municipal mirrors move us all into an even more self-reflective, theatrical example of the ways in which the 21st century has been burdened by so much outrageous baggage. Do we need “angels” in Canada to save us from all of these “ungodly” acts? Angels in America, opening at Soulpepper this month, promises to shed a sharp, profoundly moving and vastly entertaining light upon the current state of global chaos.

Considered one of the most significant theatrical events of the late 20th century, Tony Kushner’s six- hour, two-part extravaganza is subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Receiving its world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1992, the show received Tonys for best play in 1993 and 1994 for both parts: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. Yet scandal followed a number of productions, from the picketed Charlotte, North Carolina incarnation in 1996 to the ’96/’97 Calgary productions that prompted some members of the Alberta legislature to attempt to, as Susan Bennett wrote in Theatre Research in Canada, “pull government funding from Alberta Theatre Projects because of their production of a ‘gay’ play, something that was spoofed on This Hour Has 22 Minutes. The play was sold out every night.”

Set during the Reagan regime, an administration many consider responsible for the deaths of many AIDS victims due to insufficient funding, Angels in America acts as a prophetic text that deftly chronicles the specific political movements and individuals who contributed to rampant systemic homophobia, among other things. The genius of Kushner’s script begins in the very first scene of Millennium Approaches when a rabbi presiding over a funeral questions the very existence of America as a unified national identity and ends with a strict Mormon mother mingling with some very gay men. The complex politics and production values that the play embodies gradually unravel and provide a truly epic commentary upon global politics, migration, sexual identity and religious fervor as they intermingle among a diverse cast of memorable characters.

Damien Atkins, playing the pivotal role of Prior Walter, has coveted the part ever since reading it years ago when he was just coming out as a gay man. His impressive career as a multi-talented Canadian writer and performer has included self-written solo shows at Theatre Passe Muraille (Miss Chatelaine) and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (Real Live Girl) as well as the premiere of his acclaimed ensemble play Good Mother at Stratford. Angels in America is, says Atkins, a “restorative fantasy where the central character, a gay man with AIDS, is not disposable; instead, he is chosen as an ambassador of humanity in a better, more just world.”

In a Paris Review interview (2012), Kushner speaks of his debt to diverse dramaturgical icons. He says that when he was a sophomore at Columbia he “simultaneously discovered Marx, Brecht and Shakespeare, and realized they’re all playing with the same thing—the way things both are and are not what they seem. All three ask us to see the surface, but also what’s beneath the surface, what shapes the surface.”

Seeing the surface and what lies beyond is precisely what Albert Schultz is attempting to do as he directs both parts of Kushner’s magnum opus. He feels that the talents of a strong repertory company that he has worked with numerous times enable him to tackle such a mammoth undertaking. Actors Nancy Palk, Greogry Prest and Mike Ross all worked with Schultz on the acclaimed Soulpepper production of Death of a Salesman, and take on substantial roles in Angels in America. Schultz acknowledges Kushner’s debt to Arthur Miller and feels that the two years Soulpepper spent on Miller’s play prepared him for the challenge.  “The closest I have come to an experience like Angels is Death of a Salesman,” says Schultz. “There is so much of Miller in this play, the politics, the culture, that Jewish mind behind the piece. They both place several stories onstage at the same time allowing a ghost to come into a play that seems to be naturalistic.”

Belize, another pivotal role, is played by Troy Adams. Atkins describes the character as being “the heart of the play.” Adams concurs, adding his own interpretation of the only non-white role within a very diverse ensemble from drag queen to Mormon mother, rabbi and corrupt lawyer to delusional pill-popping wife. When Adams speaks of Belize he reveals a close personal connection: “Belize represents the mind, heart, soul, the human spirit of the play,” says Adams. “Here is a gay, black man who is a drag queen. That combination in itself would be very hard; the hurdles he had to rise above would be major. And he’s a male nurse in the eighties, which wasn’t accepted then like it is today. Hands down, he presents to the audience that who we are is not defined by economy, society, gender, race or disease. That being said, Belize would not be who he is if those variables were not a part of his journey as a human being. Being gay myself and of mixed heritage (black, white and First Nations) there’s a lot that I understand about Belize.”

As the antithesis to the character of Roy Cohn, a semi-fictionalized persona who acts as the primary villain of the play, Belize, like the central American country of the same name, becomes a metaphoric paradise, a kind of gorgeous conflicted coastal sliver of land existing on the edge of profound inter-continental turmoil. Kushner’s symbolic creation locates race, sexual identity and profound social responsibility within this single pivotal role.

Playing a character on the front lines of early AIDS activism is a challenge that taps into Adams’ approach to acting. “HIV is one of the biggest epidemics that we have faced as a species,” he says. “So preparing for the role is all about research, research, research. But it is always a continuous process, even during performance.”

Preparations for the production of Angels in America have included work with Casey House, and there will be a strong Soulpepper contingent of Angels in America artists in this year’s Pride parade. As Canadians longing for some semblance of a somewhat more “angelic” presence on our own national horizons, we can all find personal resonance in a play that becomes, as Atkins so aptly puts it, “a prism for seeing how civilized and just a society can be.”

But we’re not there yet. In the more than 20 years since Angels premiered, perception about gender, race, sexual orientation—and AIDS—is still a divisive issue in both political and popular culture. Whether it’s comedian Bob Hope’s homophobic remarks in 1986 or Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s continued refusal to support his LGBT constituents, it emphasizes just how  relevant a work like Angels in America is today—perhaps more so than ever. 

ANGELS IN AMERICA. $22-68. Fri, July 19-Sept 14. Young Centre for the Performing Arts.  50 Tank House Lane (in the Distillery District). 416-866-8666. soulpepper.ca