One of the most important, award-winning and controversial plays of recent history is in Cincinnati for the first time at the professional level. “Angels in America” is currently playing at the Know Theatre of Cincinnati. The show, also known as “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” takes audiences back to a distinct, yet recent, time in American history.
With this alternate name, it is clear why the play has stirred up attention. The issues presented are more diverse and complex than this would let on. With one of its leading characters being a neurotic, gay Jew, religion becomes another important part of the make up of this play.
“Angels had not had a professional production in Cincinnati since it was written nearly 20 years ago,” said Eric Vosmeier, Managing Artistic Director of the Know Theatre. “This was incredible because of the importance of the piece in the history of American theatre. We figured the time had come. And we love a ridiculous challenge.”
Set in the 1980’s in New York City, the audience is taken back to a time when America was hit with an outbreak of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, more commonly referred to as AIDS. Each of the characters either struggle with their sexuality or struggle as a result of a loved one’s sexuality. They are tied together through their disintegrating relationships as AIDS takes hold of them.
The show is done in two parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” creating what some call one of the greatest theatre experiences of our time. According to Rick Pender, theatre critic at CityBeat, the American Theatre Critics Association released a survey by its members of top plays in the 20th Century. “Angels in America” was the only play from the 90’s to break the top ten.
“Angels in America” won the Tony Award for Best Play (1993 and 1994 respectively). HBO created a miniseries of the play in 2003, and it won a Golden Globe and Emmy for Best Miniseries. To top it all, “Millennium Approaches” won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1993.
Religion in “Angels” is seemingly omnipresent, with Christianity, Judaism, and the Mormon faith all accounted for and confronted by sexuality and morals. Judaism, however, is right at the forefront.
“Kushner’s faith has a lot to do with it I’m sure,” said Brian Isaac Philips, director of the show and Artistic Director of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, by e-mail. “My other take on it is an artistic attempt at an analogy between the persecution of people of Jewish faith and the persecution of homosexuals.”
Phillips is referring to Tony Kushner (b. in 1956), the Jewish playwright and creator of “Angels.” Jewish themes are present in many of his works, especially the 2004 Broadway musical, “Caroline, or Change” and the 2005 Steven Spielberg movie “Munich” (he was a co-writer of the screenplay).
While Kushner’s Jewish heritage has clearly had an impact on his work as a playwright, it is not at all from the perspective of a devout believer in Judaism that he writes. In a literary criticism by Dr. Lane A. Glenn, Kushner is described as being ambivalent toward his faith and a “serious agonistic.”
Out of all of Kushner’s works, the most autobiographical character he created was in “Angels in America.” That character is Louis, the neurotic, gay, Jewish man mentioned above. While he struggles with faith as his world crumbles around him, his Jewish heritage begins to subconsciously enter his life.
Glenn believes this is similar to the struggle Kushner faces.
Richard A. Siegel, Executive Director for the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, called “Angels in America” an “American-Jewish” play. Siegel claimed the play has a definite effect on the audience, saying, “Jews who see it will think differently about their own Jewish identities. And non-Jews who see it will think differently about what it means to be a Jew in America.”
“Angels” tackles some core issues faced by American Jews. “Kushner asks a quintessential American-Jewish question”, said Siegel. “Does being Jewish have anything to do with human rights?”
With all the pervasive Jewish themes in the show, Philips said he spent time expanding his knowledge of Judaism, in addition to the Mormon faith. Yiddish and Hebrew lines are peppered throughout the show. Rocco Dal Vera, professor of drama at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, spent time with the actors on the pronunciation and dialect.
“The more an individual is familiar with any aspect of this piece, the richer experience they will have with it,” Philips said. “That goes for Jews, Mormons and every other religious, sexual and political persuasion represented on stage.”
Even though the play struggles with homosexuality and religion, Philips said the play is for everyone, regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation.
“The play has much to say about America and our identity. And America’s identity is composed of all of us.” I’d say that’s as good a reason as any to head down to the Know Theatre before May 8.
“Angels in America” runs through May 8 at the Know Theatre of Cincinnati, 1120 Jackson St., in downtown Cincinnati. “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika” run on rotating days, or in repertory. To check the schedule and purchase tickets, call the theatre at 300-KNOW(5669) or visit knowtheatre.com.
Sammy Kanter is a “freshman in life” trying to break into the magical yet insane world of show business. Post-college, he spent five months interning at the Signature Theatre in Washington D.C. He has returned to Cincinnati, and he is living in a nice house with two roommates, Mom and Dad. Sammy loves being back in this city as a young adult and discovering all the great things it has to offer. He holds a B.S. in Newspaper from the Newhouse School at Syracuse University.