Entertainment Local

Angels in America brings fresh revelations

By Brian Paterson

Damien Atkins. (David Cooper Photo)

Damien Atkins. (David Cooper Photo)

Early in my conversation with director Kim Collier, it became clear how it is difficult to describe Angels in America without rattling off long lists of adjectives (“Huge, epic, smart, powerful theatre,” she tells me).

This should be no surprise, perhaps. Monumental in importance and exquisite in beauty, it is no exaggeration to call it the late 20th century’s greatest work of theatre.

The significant work is written in two parts: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. Next week, the former begins previews at Arts Club’s Stanley Theatre, with the latter set to open the company’s 2017/18 season next fall.

“The play was written around 1994 in response to the AIDS crisis,” Collier says. “At that time, (AIDS) had been ravaging the social, cultural, and political maps for more than 10 years. Tony Kushner wrote Angels in America as a cathartic expression and a way to address what was happening.”

Kushner’s complex story is rich in metaphor and mythology, following a diverse array of intertwining lives as they navigate the hardships of the AIDS crisis and their own inner demons.

Narrative threads include an HIV positive gay man receiving divine visitations; a closeted Mormon Republican and his agoraphobic, addict wife; and Roy Cohn, the true-life McCarthyist lawyer and closeted homosexual who died of AIDS in 1986, insisting it was liver cancer to the very end.

Written in the mid-90s and set in the mid-80s, Angels in America was immediately recognized as a work of great urgency and importance through the acclaim of audiences and critics, and the receipt of numerous awards, including a Pulitzer and Tony.

“Kushner uses the AIDS crisis as an example of something that can come into our culture and test the limits of our compassion,” Collier explains, drawing a line between then and now. “In 2017, we’re encountering the same thing. The rise in intolerance – or the thin veneer of tolerance - looks very daunting right now. It feels as though things are going to become more conservative, intolerant, and nativist; that we’re seeing more homophobia and anti-feminism.”

In many ways, the questions at the heart of Angels in America have only gained importance since its first staging.

“The play asks us to look at who we are,” she continues. “Who we are as a culture; who we are as citizens. It asks will we care for each other – or will we ultimately act in self-interest?”

The opportunity to direct Angels in America was first presented to Collier seven years ago, but the time was not right. The director admitted that she was “terrified of the play” and found the character of Roy Cohn especially difficult to approach.

“Since then, I’ve tackled Red with that big Rothko figure - and Saint Joan with its powerful male figures,” she reflects. “And I’ve become much more politically oriented. I’m much more comfortable with the idea of talking about and working with Roy Cohn. The uncertainly has been erased.”

Appropriately, the current production was proposed to Collier by Brian Markinson, who plays the intimidating Cohn next week (and who will be familiar to many as Don Draper’s doctor neighbour in later seasons of Mad Men).

Collier and Markinson’s plans to mount the work began back in 2015 – but everything changed last fall.

“When Trump won the election, we went back to the drawing board,” Collier recollects. “We felt the play’s political aspect had become utterly vital and important again.”

“We already had a complete set designed, but I asked our set designer can you start over?” she expanded, before describing the new vision. “We put it in a more overt, more conscious socio-political realm. We’re now referencing the ideas of state, empire, and Washington.

“It’s important for us as artists to talk directly in this time – to not beat around the bush, but do our work in the context of now. The now changed radically last fall. And I felt it was important to respond to it directly. And so we have.”

Angels in America begins previews March 23 (with opening night on March 29) at the Stanley Theatre. For more information visit www.artsclub.com.