Carv's Thinky Blog I'm an author with a focus on satirical sci-fi and agnostic commentary.

11Mar/150

A Straight Meditation on National Themes, Part 2

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!

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18Feb/150

A Straight Meditation on National Themes, Part 1

Unless you're an actor, it's probable you know nothing about Tony Kushner's landmark 1993 play Angels in America (though you may have caught the HBO miniseries version). Angels sounds like the kind of show you'd find at a Baptist theme park. It is not. Theatre folk revere this multiple Tony winner, but it's both arduous to stage and off-putting to elderly, conservative audiences, so most companies shy away from producing it. Oh! I should also mention it's divided into two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, each of which is three hours long. That's a long sit, especially when characters are rambling on about government and "power to the people." So why do we in the acting and directing games adore it so much?

A key element of the play is gay Americans' struggle for acceptance in the 1980s, as a viral plague ravaged their community while amplifying the phobias of heterosexuals. I've told the story before of how a visit to a drag club, and a list of names read there of the recently deceased, won me over once and for all to the side of righteousness--meaning I am a straight ally. That night in, I think, 1991 was a game-changer for me. It put the lie to everything I'd been told about homosexuality by my Christian elders while injecting harsh reality and urgency into the AIDS crisis. Five years later, I found myself playing Louis in an SIU-C production of Angels in America, Part 1. I auditioned in hopes of earning the part of Roy Cohn, a thinly fictionalized incarnation of the very real attorney at the heart of the Red Scare and marginalization of gay citizens. Cohn died of what he called "liver cancer," in actuality HIV, in 1986. Instead I got Louis, who has many more lines and is openly gay and is also kind of a bastard himself, in that he begins an affair even as his longtime boyfriend disintegrates from HIV infection.

We heterosexual folks who love theatre spend our lives working side by side with gay men and lesbians. We love them as family. They're part of us. So when we hear about legislators, to this very day, working overtime to curry favor with Fox News viewers by yanking hard-won rights away from those we love, it destroys us on a gut level. We embrace Angels in America because it articulates, in so many ways, a cause we view as embedded in our cells. Its characters demand equality, from God and other humans, as opponents close ranks around them. This play is the Marseillaise to our war: "C'est nous qu'on ose méditer de rendre à l'antique esclavage! Aux armes, citoyens!"

But if I'm being honest, even as the justice of our cause swelled my chest, I was uncomfortable rehearsing as Louis. I'd never kissed a man before, and I'd certainly never mimed sexual activity with my pants down before hundreds of people. The play is still shocking to conservative audiences, but man; in 1996, in Bible-belt southern Illinois, patrons' outrage--yes, I know the word outrage is vastly overused, but I stand by it here--nearly set the room on fire. I had to confront and get over my own hangups and prejudices, then face the collective displeasure of six hundred people a night. There were letters to the editor. People were assigned to walk actors to their cars. It was crazy. And I know it changed at least one life...mine.

Fast-forward 22 years to tomorrow at 7:55 p.m., when I'll walk on stage, finally, as Roy Cohn in an Olympia Little Theatre production of Angels in America directed by Nic Olson. We're presenting Millennium Approaches this first week, then Perestroika the second. It's a staged reading, meaning we actors will have books in our hands, but I think even OLT was surprised by the level to which this staged reading has been produced. It's fully blocked, costumed, lit, and sound-designed. There's a rudimentary set, complete with levels and special effects. To facilitate fight, love, and sex scenes, we've memorized certain pages. We studied Aramaic, French, Hebrew and medical jargon. No one gets naked, but we would've if asked. At the risk of implied condescension, I can't imagine how OLT could've asked for or gotten a smarter, more dedicated, talented cast. Kudos, for example, to Austin Lang, who's playing Louis; he's made choices I wish I'd been clever enough to make at SIU. I think what audience members get from this show is 85-90% of a fully-staged production, and remember, that's over six hours of theatre. Not too shabby!

If, that is, we get an audience. I haven't made too big a deal of the show up till now, because frankly, some of my readers won't want to see it. If, for example, you oppose gay marriage, this show isn't for you. Gay marriage wasn't a remote possibility when Angels was written, but the absolute rightness of it underlies every word. If the sight of two men kissing gives you the squeams, then, again, this show isn't for you. I suspect the 21st century won't be, either. If you can't abide swearing--I say words in this I wouldn't call my worst enemy--or seeing me play a horrible person--absolutely the worst I've ever played, by the time Perestroika gets through--then please stay home. Save your eight bucks a night. I mean, maybe this'd be a great learning experience for you, but frankly, you seem like the kind of person who avoids those. Not my problem. If you love to be challenged, however, to be wildly entertained by the hugest of emotional arcs at the climax of the Eschaton itself, then I damn sure know what you should put on your calendar.

It's different doing this show now, not just because I'm playing Roy instead of Louis. The world has changed in so many wonderful ways over the last two decades, some of which allowed it to mature in ways that helped it catch up with the play. My friends helped make some of that happen. One of our professors at ECU, Mary Bishop (now Bishop-Baldwin), was a driving force in legalizing gay marriage in Oklahoma. The cool theatre senior who lived next door is now a different sex altogether, which makes her one of three transgendered people on my Facebook friends list. Again: not part of our collective reality in 1996. Each day, the fight for equality is taking place in everyone's neighborhood, on TV and in social media, and the good guys and gals are finally winning. On the theatre side, no more do we see open homophobia in newspaper reviews. Actors are expected to be fully comfortable performing gay characters, including same-sex physical contact. It's part of our lives now. And y'know, once that period of uncertainty and yes, discomfort, passed, it freed people like me to understand that Angels in America has a much bigger theme than even the securing of equal rights for all our fellow Americans. It's about what it means to be a country itself. What is the point of all this? What are we trying to accomplish? How do we move ahead, and toward what, when we haven't decided what our guiding principles are? No, God isn't dead, but He also isn't president. He doesn't tell us which legislation to pass. The books He allegedly wrote seem decreasingly relevant to our daily lives, not because we're all fallen sinners, but because they predate modern science or humanistic ethics (or, in the case of the Torah at least, Euclidean geometry). In other words, while God continues His two-thousand-year history as a deadbeat dad, how and, as significant, why do we conduct our civilization? Those are vast questions. In some ways, six hours of drama isn't enough to scratch the surface, but Kushner's attempt at doing so is comparable to Shakespeare's meditations on the human condition in Hamlet. It doesn't get any bigger or better.

So that's the outline. I'll have more to say about our experiences with Angels, and in more of an anecdotal fashion, next week. In the meantime, wish us broken legs. Let us know what you think of our show. It'll be interesting, for both us and you.

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