I spent February in the skin of a monster. I played Roy Cohn, the very real attorney who guided the knife point of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's Red Scare, then adamantly denied his own homosexuality even as he was dying of AIDS. He's a character in Tony Kushner's landmark, two-part play Angels in America, which was directed for Olympia Little Theatre by Nic Olson. The show inspires bizarre moments on stage.
OLT's new artistic director Kendra Malm was delivering opening-night house announcements when suddenly, a stack of boxes that formed a wall of the set leaned over and collapsed. The destruction of that wall, and the emergence of an angel through the breach, mark the climax of Part 1, Millennium Approaches. "I don't think that was supposed to happen," Malm announced accurately. No one was standing anywhere near the structure, which remained upright for 21 hours prior to the fall. This sort of thing makes actors believe in theater ghosts.
We performed for a larger house the second night. After the three-hour show, as per OLT custom, we greeted departing guests as they passed through the lobby. An audience member (and frequent OLT actor) came over to shake my hand. "Hey, do you watch that show Breaking Bad?" she asked. I replied it was one of my favorites. "Your Cohn kinda reminds me of that lawyer," she mused, meaning Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). I threw my arms in a V and claimed victory for the night. That performance, at least, I won Angels in America. That was one of my favorite audience compliments ever.
By Saturday we were inured to the occasional walkout. (The show pushes people's buttons.) We agree it was our finest performance of Millennium Approaches, and the crowd responded warmly. Sunday? Not so much. An audience member shook my hand and asked, "How do you do all that yelling?" Another complimented each of us in turn before arriving at the last actor in line. Instead of praising his performance, the audience member announced, "You need to speak up more," then strode out the door.
I wonder if anyone in the Saturday-night performance of Part 2, Perestroika noticed Roy's blessing of Joe included the split-finger Vulcan symbol. I learned Leonard Nimoy, who passed away that morning, based the gesture on the Hebrew letter shin. That letter stands kabbalistically for both Shaddai (Almighty) and Shekinah (the feminine dimension of God).
You have to hand it to any audience member who sits through, and tracks with, an epic night of theatre that makes David Mamet sound like the Disney Channel. Even a brief male-male sex scene, which caused pandemonium in the SIU-C theater where I played Louis twenty-two years ago, raised nary an eyebrow over the weekend. I did learn something new: in Olympia, snapping your fingers at an actor means, "I agree." Apparently, it's something students do at The Evergreen State College to avoid interrupting discussions or lectures. I wish I'd known that beforehand; in theatre circles, snapping fingers usually means "hurry up." I was acting as fast as I could!
I think the cast of Angels in America would agree that a role in that show is something an actor hopes to achieve as much as enjoy. We tested our mettle against it and emerged with minimal bruising. Thanks to every audience member who braved its content and morally complex characters. Now, on to directing a nostalgic comedy! In the week and a half since we wrapped Angels, the cast of Laughing Stock at OLT has already blocked that new show and worked through most of its scenes. That's good, because we open in sixteen days. No pressure!