Angels in America can’t be called ‘just another play.’ It would be like calling Neon Bible a decent LP. Or saying Mad Men is an okay period piece. The sprawling, emotionally charged masterwork by American playwright Tony Kushner ranges from New York to Heaven to Antarctica as a cast of gay men, Mormons, angels and hallucinations intersect during the AIDS crisis and Reagan administration of late 1980s America. It stretches over two parts – Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. It’s won the Pulitzer and Tony awards. Its HBO miniseries adaptation (featuring Meryl Streep, Al Pacino and Emma Thompson) was similarly burdened with Emmys and Golden Globes.
So don’t be surprised that the cast and crew working on Winnipeg Jewish Theatre’s run of Angels – the first part opening on March 21, the second in the fall – are being touched in different ways by the play.
That’s what happens when you work with angels.
The day before our interview, Michael Rubenfeld rehearsed anal sex.
“It was fine. It was just a scene,” he says. “He wasn’t really giving me anal sex - it might have been a different story if he actually penetrated me.”
The former Winnipegger is playing Louis Ironson in Angels. Ironson abandons his AIDS infected lover early in the play, eventually hooking up with the deeply closeted (and married) Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt. Their encounters are edgy, to put it mildly.
“Actually, it was kind of fun,” Rubenfeld continues. “I like the feeling of being uncomfortable in rehearsal – myself and others around me. It makes me feel, oddly, more comfortable. It’s a fun social experiment to see people giggly and curious. And everyone was super giddy, it’s such a tense scene.”
The Toronto based actor isn’t gay himself, though he’s played gay men before, on screen and on stage. The orientation of a role isn’t central, he says; nor does he find living in the skin of a gay character unusual.
“The only challenge I feel is not playing into stereotypes; just playing the words and not trying to add some affectation on top of the part. I trust that if I play the truth of the emotions and tell the story, the rest will take care of itself.”
“And homosexuality has been in my life since I was a child… I grew up with an uncle who was gay. I don’t think I’m someone who had to deal with any kind of internalized homophobia that I didn’t know existed…. I feel very comfortable within the culture.”
The actor points to other productions of Angels now running in New York and Philadelphia as signs of a renewed interest in the play and a reaction against resurging conservative politics in North America.
“It’s speaking to so many relevant conversations. It was written in the mid-90s but if you change around a few names… the western world is still having so many of the same conversations.”
“It’s just a great fucking play.”
“I’ve heard the part of Prior described as one of those Everest parts,” says Ryan Miller, speaking about his role. “It doesn’t scare me when people say ‘I’m so looking forward to seeing this play’ but when they say ‘Oh! That’s a big part’… when people do that, it sort of snaps me back into reality and makes me ask if I’m capable of doing this.”
Miller is making his professional stage debut with WJT as Prior Walter, the AIDS infected, prophetically gifted character Angels revolves around. A core member of local sketch comedy troupe Hot Thespian Action, Miller admits to being intimidated by both the part and his more accomplished fellow actors. He draws on powerful personal experiences, however, to rise to the challenge of being Angel’s moral centre.
“Not that I have AIDS and my lover is leaving me… but I always relate my situation in the play to when my dad passed away from cancer. It was very quick, it was very sudden. So it feels like similar storylines, you know? The way Prior deteriorates very quickly into just shitting blood and he’s dying in front of the audience’s eyes… we watched my dad deteriorate right in front of our eyes. It happened so quickly and it was just so… earth shattering. So I’m able to relate to my character that way. Not that I’ve gone through a horrible disease of my own. But I’ve watched it.”
“When I programmed this play, I was still married,” says Michael Nathanson, Artistic Producer of Winnipeg Jewish Theatre. “I find myself separated from my wife currently - and my children - so Angels connects on an extraordinarily primal level for me right now. About the pain involved in relationships.”
Nathanson came on board as WJT’s Artistic Producer in 2006, in time to see his two-hander Talk produced that fall (and go on to be nominated for the Governor General’s Award). Since then, he’s programmed seasons combining new work, Canadian premieres and classics. Angels in America, with its large cast and fantastical plot, might be his most challenging choice yet.
“It’s the very definition of writing that comes from the gut and has blood on the page. It’s a cri de coeur. And it feels for me like such a deeply Jewish play... Israel means arguing with God and Angels in America, we don’t have the Hebrew word for it, but it would be arguing with America.”
“It’s this amazingly vital, heartfelt, human exploration of our need for other people. And it’s impossible to listen to this play, let alone watch it, and not come away moved and changed.”
Angels in America: Millennium Approaches runs March 21 to April 1 at Winnipeg Jewish Theatre (Asper Community Campus, Berney Theatre). Details and online tickets ($15 for students) are at wjt.ca