It’s twelve years after the millennium, and even more since anyone thought much about Perestroika or the millennium as still approaching. But last week couldn’t have been a better time to have seen Angels in America. Despite having taught Tony Kushner’s masterpiece twice (or at least the first part, Millennium Approaches) and although I’ve seen the HBO adaptation again and again, I never thought I’d get to see the play AS a play—until the Stray Dog Theater in St Louis undertook performances of both parts. It’s a bold and difficult play to stage, but it couldn’t have been a better venue—Stray Dog performs in the Tower Grove Abbey, its arched ceiling, wooden pews, and stained glass windows creating a hyperreal, ethereal quality to seeing angels. And the 8 actors who took on all 32 roles were more than up to it. In many ways, the play is about ‘80s apocalypticism, although it wasn’t actually produced until the 1990s. Yet I want to emphasize that it works just as well now as it may have then—maybe even better.
The play relies on the symmetry between two couples—Prior, struggling with his diagnosis of AIDS, and his lover Louis, struggling with Prior’s struggling with AIDS; the Mormon couple Harper, struggling against mental illness, and her husband Joe, struggling against his own repressed homosexuality. Prior wrestles angels; Harper wrestles inner demons. The live staging frequently features both couples on stage at the same time, taking turns acting their conflicts adjacently, literally in parallel. When reading—or even watching as a movie—we’re used to page breaks or camera cuts, naturally shifting our attention. But we can’t forget the other characters when they’re all still in front of our eyes, like watching doubles tennis. The HBO series’ introduction is all sky, swoops, and distance, but the enclosed play forces our attention strictly on the characters.
Students reading the play always fret about what they should take as real, fantasy, imagined, or hallucination. I always told them not to worry too much about it and just go with the play’s feeling and language. And seeing the play live confirms this sense that the supernatural elements—Prior and Harper somehow meet in their dream-slash-Valium induced delirium, respectively; the ghost of Ethyl Rosenberg shows up to haunt the other main character, Roy Cohn, based on the recently deceased (or he’d have no doubt sued) real-life Roy Cohn who, like Prior, has contracted AIDS—aren’t really meant to be puzzled over. Like so much of what’s strange or inexplicable in real life, they’re not even that mysterious. They just are.
Seeing the production live emphasized another crucial aspect of the play that’s easy to overlook or forget on the page, one that wasn’t a part of the film adaptation: for much of Part 1, whether he is part of the scene or not, Prior lies in his bed in the middle of the stage; for most of Part II, it is Roy. No matter what else is happening, the viewer is constantly reminded of the AIDS-stricken bodies that for most of the ‘80s seemed kept out of view, offstage. Similarly, in Part 1 Prior strips of his clothes for his medical examination; in Part II, Joe and Harper appear nude. In the movie, it seems standard issue celluloid skin. Mary Louis Parker’s Harper isn’t so different from Mary Louis Parker’s Nancy Botwin on Weeds, who is semi-clad semi-weekly. Yet when the actors strip in real time, in place, in person, it is another reminder of the way in which the roles themselves force the actors to bare all emotionally, and now physically, another way in which this play, angels to the contrary, is all about human bodies.
If you’re not familiar with the play, it may seem as though its emphasis on homosexuality, on the one hand, or religion, on the other, could be a turn off. In fact, when I went to IMDB for the blog’s opening image, its sidebar offered two Related Lists: one that featured the movie Doubt, and the other labeled Gay Interest. But media talking heads to the contrary, gay and religious themes aren’t necessarily on opposing hands at all, and the play is very much about love, and death, and the problems of being human, things I imagine that anyone can relate to.
But despite the play’s length, running over seven hours total, dialogue, which is often rapid-fire, and concomitant complexity, let’s even take its themes at face value. Even then, the last two weeks suggest that the play is not just of the 80s, or the 90s, or the millennium. We now have the first serious Mormon contender running for President, even as Angels is preoccupied with the ways in which Mormonism is America’s only home-grown religion, and perhaps all saints are now Latter Day. And less than two weeks ago, President Obama finally made his support for same-sex marriage clear.
In the play, Louis rails against what he sees as “the worst kind of liberalism, really, bourgeois tolerance, and what I think AIDS shows us is the limits of tolerance, that it’s not enough to be tolerated, because when the shit hits the fan, you find out just how much tolerance is worth. Nothing. And underneath all the tolerance is intense, passionate hatred.” In some ways, the scene is meant to stack the deck against Louis—he himself is hypocritical, overly cerebral, and self-indulgent, spouting polemics when in his personal life he has abandoned Prior. His conversation and sparring partner here is Belize, who replies to Louis’s page-length monologue with a dismissive “Uh huh.”
Yet I can’t help but wonder if Kushner nevertheless stands partially behind the sentiment, as perhaps now, with the millennium firmly behind us, we may as well. While it looks like once again gay marriage will be a culture war issue for the ballot box, it now seems as though endorsing it, rather than opposing it, may be the winning side on the issue. We can now see tolerance for what it is—not necessarily Nothing, but rather simply setting the bar too low, far too low, since to tolerate something suggests that we’ll put up with it, but nothing more.
Angels in America in 2012 suggests that we can move past tolerance to something better: equality.
Time: 70 minutes. This took me longer than I thought it would.