Gay fantasia: Cameron McVeigh and Peter Downey star in Actors' Theatre's production of Angels in America, Part One.
War in Heaven
Two local theater companies offer no-holds-barred productions of 'Angels in America'
By Daedalus Howell
GET READY for a battle royal. ... Or maybe not. You might expect to see some serious butting of halos on local stages on the evening of Nov. 12, when dueling productions of Angels in America, Part One: The Millennium Approaches are opened by both Actors' Theatre and Sonoma State University's Drama Ensemble.
But according to the leaders of the two small armies of actors involved, there's no conflict here at all.
An epic three-hour gay fantasia set during the maelstrom of conservatism and AIDS tragedies that marked the mid-'80s, playwright Tony Kushner's globetrotting plot line braids religious, racial, and political concerns into a Gordian knot that binds together the real world and the supernatural. The play, controversial for its explicit sexuality, has won a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize, so it's no surprise that a Sonoma County theater company would decide to stage it. But why two rival productions? And why now?
"Even though the play takes place 15 years ago, it talks about what's happening right now," says Harry Waters Jr., director of the SSU production. "A character mentions at one point that 'it's 1985--15 years until the next millennium.' Now here we are literally on the threshold."
Back in 1991, Waters starred as Belize, an African-American ex-drag queen and registered nurse, in the world premiere of Angels at San Francisco's Eureka Theatre.
"The play is not only a barometer of how far we've come, but of how prophetic Kushner was about the change in politics," says Waters. "We've retrenched our liberal agenda and everyone's being more centrist and has become economically rather than socially oriented."
It's rare for two neighboring theater companies to bring the same play to the stage at the same time, but neither AT nor SSU seems interested in clipping the other's wings.
"It's one of the best plays written in the past 10 years, and nobody in this area has produced it until now," says Actors' Theatre artistic director Argo Thompson, who directs AT's Angels.
Thompson did not become aware of the SSU production until last spring when, during a conversation with then-director Mary Coleman (a career move to Pixar Studios later made her no longer available to the SSU production), he discovered the productions also shared the same opening night.
"We were discussing the upcoming seasons, and Angels in America came up," Thompson recalls. "She said 'Wait, I'm directing Angels at Sonoma State.' We discussed the possibility of one company doing part one and the other doing Part Two: Perestroika, but I already had plans of doing part two the following season."
The directors decided that the proximity of their venues (they are separated by 20 miles) and the distinction between academic and general audiences would have little impact on either production's box office.
"Our audiences probably won't overlap, and if they do, it's good they get two different interpretations," says Thompson.
One of the characteristics that distinguishes between the shows is the size of the venues themselves. Actors' Theatre seats 70 around a 650-square-foot stage. Conversely, SSU's Evert B. Person Theater seats 470 in front of a 3,400-square-foot proscenium stage.
Keeping to the maxim that "it's not size but experience that counts," Thompson concentrated his efforts on mining the play's subtleties rather than creating a spectacle.
"Kushner himself, in his notes on producing the play, says that it benefits from a pared-down style of staging. The bits of magic are to be realized as 'theater magic.' The audience should always be able to see the wires," says Thompson, who touts the relative professionalism of his cast as one of his production's assets.
"I imagine the [SSU] students are all very talented," he says. "I know they have a great program at SSU, and they certainly have a good director to do it, but they are younger."
Waters concedes that his student ensemble is indeed youthful, but he's confident it is up to the challenge.
"Most of my cast are in their early 20s, but many of the characters are in their 30s or older. The actors have responded to my pushing them as far as they can go, and I'm not done yet," he says with a laugh.
A scene where productions of Angels often diverge from one another depicts a sexual encounter between two men in Central Park for which Kushner penned only the laconic stage direction "They begin to fuck."
Interestingly, both companies have elected to take the scene head-on.
"We kept it in there and didn't shy away from it. We heard that some productions have made it into a campy send-up," says Thompson. "We wanted to walk that thin line--if the audience feels it has to laugh because it's uncomfortable, it will feel OK about laughing, but can take it seriously as well."
Says Waters of the SSU crew's no-holds-barred approach to the scene, "We're doing it. That's what Kushner wrote. There will be people who will only see that scene, regardless of everything else that's happening in those three hours--they will focus on two minutes of the play. That's really sad to me.
"So I'm going to give them those two minutes, but it means you have to stay and watch the rest of the play," Waters laughs.
SO HOW IS IT that the powers that be permitted two productions of the same show to open on the same night in the same county? Christopher Gould, owner of Broadway Play Publishing, the New York-based outfit that licensed these productions, says the decision to allow a double dose of Angels comes down to keeping Kushner cushy.
"They're both amateur licenses, meaning neither of the companies are using equity [unionized] actors. Those that do use equity actors get exclusive rights," says Gould.
"Our contractual agreement with the author states specifically that we will do our utmost to earn royalties for him at the highest amount. We'll charge as much as we can. That's our job," he says. "It's basically impossible for any sort of licensing company that's doing any volume of business to keep track of every single license of a play and compare it to every other license that comes in."
Local audiences, however, can compare, which Thompson and Waters encourage. The directors do not consider themselves competitors so much as comrades in service to Kushner's work, and ultimately, their audiences.
Says Waters, "One way or the other--either on the grand scale or on an intimate scale--see it!"
Actors' Theatre's 'Angels in America' runs Nov . 12-Dec. 18, Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. at the LBC, 50 Mark West Springs, Santa Rosa. $8-$15. 523-4185.
The SSU Drama Ensemble production of 'Angels in America' plays Nov. 12-21: Thursday (Nov. 18), Fridays-Saturdays at 7 p.m., and Sundays at 5 p.m. (Nov . 14) and 2 p.m. (Nov. 21) Evert B. Person Theatre on the SSU campus, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. $8-$15. 664-2353.
From the November 11-17, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.