Prof. Sehdev Kumar
TORONTO: Angels in America is an epic play; in two parts: Part I – Millennium Approaches, Part II – Perestroika, playwright Tony Kushner spans the history of the 20th century, from the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, to McCarthyism in USA in 1950s,to the collapse of communism in 1990, all wrapped around the HIV/Aids crisis in 1980s, and the convoluted lives of gay people.
Stretched over seven hours, this is a mammoth work of relentless exploration of love and betrayal, of longing and loneliness, of ruthlessness and redemption, and of biting satire and comedy.
The play, in both parts, is currently being presented at Young Centre in Toronto in the Distillery District by the theatre company Soulpepper under the imaginative and brilliant direction of Albert Schulz. This spectacular work is an extraordinary treat for all lovers of theatre and of the human condition, in all its rich and varied fecundity.
The play presents eight characters, each one of them playing several roles, and assuming many different personas. The veteran stage actress Nancy Palk, for instance, plays roles of two different women, but also of two different men – one, an aging Rabbi and the other, the oldest living Bolshevik revolutionary in 1988. She does this with aplomb, highlighting the playwright’s abiding belief that in each person there are many persons, often very conflicting persons.
The 1980s saw the outbreak of HIV/Aids epidemic, largely in the gay communities, but soon engulfing all populations in many parts of the world. The epidemic created fear and revulsion, betrayal and questioning, fierce battles within and between various religious groups. The play encompasses all these with relentless ingenuity; the characters here are Mormons and Jews, black and white, conniving and gullible. And some of them hear voices, see angels, visit heaven and the Antarctica, fly close to the Ozone layer and wonder why this layer of oxygen molecules is unleashing such horror on earth.
The most colourful and engaging character in the play is that of a real, historical figure Roy Cohn; he is ruthless, manipulative, and through and through cynical and irredeemable. Played by Diego Matamoros, his venom and cynicism ooze out like puss.
The play has been turned into an opera and a a TV series by Mike Nicholas. Last year, Kushner wrote the script for film Lincoln, and won an Oscar for it.
The play, since it was first produced in early 1990s, is a landmark in the history of theatre. It has been honoured with many awards, and it has created furore and protests by many religious and nationalistic groups. It was last presented by Canadian Stage Company in 1996-97 with over 350 presentations. It was the most talked about play in the theatre history of Canada.
Its presentation by Soulpepper marks another landmark for this most unusual and original play. It is a play that must not be missed it is brilliant, imaginative and endlessly provocative.
(Prof Sehdev Kumar lectures on International Films at the University of Toronto)