Thursday, May 3, 2018

Wrestling with Angels, Laughing at Demons

Randy Harrison and Francesca Faridany
 in Angels in America at Berkeley Rep.
photo: Kevin Berne
It would be great if the fact that two major productions of Tony Kushner's two-part drama, Angels in America, could bracket our nation and hold it together. But unfortunately, it reflects the comic chaos then and now, and our confused queries about democracy, death, and justice. On its 25th anniversary, the work continues to inspire, and reminds me of the many people I've lost in the past quarter century.

The story of the play's development is as long and fascinating as the work itself. Here's a Slate oral history of the work's development, which moves from San Francisco to New York, as did my journeys to see the play. A brief quote:
Stephen Spinella with Tony Kushner
in the 1993 Broadway production
of Angels in America

"Tony Kushner’s Angels in America premiered in the tiny Eureka Theatre in San Francisco’s Mission District. Within two years it had won the Pulitzer Prize and begun a New York run that would dominate the Tony Awards two years in a row, revitalize the non-musical play on Broadway, and change the way gay lives were represented in pop culture. Both parts of Angels, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, put gay men at the center of American politics, history, and mythology at a time when they were marginalized by the culture at large and dying in waves."

Understandably, death plays an important role in the works. But surprisingly, while the main character Prior Walter actually wrestles an angel for answers, and his blessing, the plays are quite funny –hilarious, in fact– because the jokes are paired with serious issues and emotions.

Earnie Stephenson dancing. photo: Robert Flynt

Night flight to San Francisco - chase the moon across America.
In 1993, I saw the original cast of the Broadway production with my Ohio State University Dance Department college pal Earnie Stevenson, on a wintry day in December. Between the shows, we ate dinner at a nearby restaurant, and caught up after my short time having moved to San Francisco. My family was celebrating the holidays in New York.

We caught up on the old OSU days, where Earnie was a star dancer in several works, and our on-again off-again romance. Later, Earnie worked with BeBe Miller's company. He then shifted to arts administration. 

Jim Provenzano & Earnie Stephenson in New York City, 1995
We only caught up via phone calls over the years, and a little bit on social media, until I and other classmates got the sad news that he had died on July 8, 2015, not of anything to do with HIV. But still, Kushner's play and my relationship with Earnie remain closely connected. You can see some remembrances of him on a Facebook page.

Here's a photo of the two of us at a subway station in 1995, when I stopped back to New York for a week before spending a summer in Italy.

Nothing unknown is knowable.
Having seen the 1993 Broadway production, I enjoyed but was not dazzled by the American Conservatory Theatre version in 1994. Yet this SF Gate feature touches on some more of the plays' merits. Perhaps the thrill of an initial viewing had worn off.

The HBO film of Angels in America.
When the 2003 HBO miniseries adaptation was broadcast, I fell in love with the plays again. My mother bought a DVD copy, and on frequent visits back home, we watched it with my father. I think she empathized with Meryl Streep's Mother Pitt character. 

While by no means religious, or Mormon, she liked the stalwart way she dealt with her son's frantic sad phone call. Many a night, from college, or in New York, she patiently supported me as I continued to struggle through being out, being a struggling artist. All along the way, she kept asking me to consider putting all the frustrations of dance and performance aside, and just being a writer. How right she was.

At her various senior homes when we moved her to California, we watched it several times, me not knowing that the memory of previous viewing might have faded in her encroaching dementia.

While she loved it for the humane portrayal of its characters, I love it for the clever dialogue, and, as Jeffrey Wright, who played Belize in the Broadway production I saw, and in the film, said in an interview:
"There are limitations to art as a political tool. I think art and artists can raise the flag of awareness and then leave the hard work to others to do. But in the case of Angels, I have never been a part of something that was so evidently powerful and empowering for the audience and so obviously a public validation in the mainstream square that had been thirsted for for a long time."
Carmen Roman (Ethel Rosenberg)
and Stephen Spinella (Roy Cohn)
in the 2018 production of Angels in America
photo: Kevin Berne

Just mangled guts pretending
Update to now, 2018, where the Broadway production in New York City is getting raves. Berkeley Rep's production, which stars Randy Harrison as Prior Walter, and Stephen Spinella as Roy Cohn, is also enjoying deserved praise. Both, however, can be seen in a new, more daunting light.

The current political situation has gone from the black comedy of Tony Kushner, to the increasingly horrid absurdity of Kushners (the Jared kind), and the dozens of criminals getting fired and picked off one by one as the Mueller investigation gathers steam, and indictments and warrants. Even venally corrupt Roy Cohn could not have predicted the state of idiocy currently in the White House. 

Cohn worked closely with Trump in the 1980s, as written in this history feature in the New York Times.  Frank Rich's expansive feature compares the fictional Cohn in Angels in America to the expansively corrupt real one in a New York magazine feature.
"While Tony Kushner’s epic had been seared into my memory by the frail figure of Prior Walter, a young gay man fighting AIDS with almost the entire world aligned against him, this time it was Roy Cohn who dominated: a closeted, homophobic, middle-aged gay man also battling AIDS but who, unlike the fictional Prior, was a real-life Über-villain of America’s 20th century. “The polestar of human evil,” as one character describes him. “The worst human being who ever lived … the most evil, twisted, vicious bastard ever to snort coke at Studio 54.”
David Marshall Grant and Joe Mantello
in the 1993 Broadway production of
Angels in America.
And his legacy is made fact in today's headlines. Trump allegedly forced his quack doctor to give him a glowing health checkup, even though he probably never gave him a physical. (source: The Hill)

"I just made it up as I went along," said Dr. Bornstein, whose offices were raided in 2017.  This should sound familiar to fans of Angels in America, who recall the scene where Cohn shouts his doctor into submission after his AIDS diagnosis. "I have liver cancer," Cohn argues in his defiant claim that people in power do not get AIDS.

In today's news, we learn that Trump lied 3000 times in 466 days, according to CNN. That's 6.5 times a day.
"The problem with Trump's penchant for prevarication is that it's hard to contextualize it. We've never had a president with such a casual relationship to the truth. We have no count of how many lies Barack Obama or George W. Bush told per day because, well, they weren't as committed to saying and then repeating falsehoods as Trump quite clearly is."
Cohn's motive to install corrupt Republican judges spawned the seeds of our current state of bigotry.  In Oklahoma, a bill making it legal to ban gays and lesbians from adopting kids has passed their house and been signed by their GOP governor (LGBTQ Nation).

Threshold of Revelation
Berkeley Repertory Theatre's current production is terrific, energetic, and enjoys the ironic recasting of Stephen Spinella this time as Roy Cohn. As Prior Walter he was frail, strong and comedic at once, and as Cohn, he bellows, claws and stares with an evil conviction that rivals his former costar Ron Leibman.

As described in a 7X7 review, a "deceptively spare and monolithic set by Takeshi Kata" shows patterns of marble crypts, with projections and moving set pieces that immediately take us into and out of each scene. From the first moment of the Jewish funeral, death pervades.

Ashland College Hugo Young Theatre, 1970s
It's a strange shock to watch Angels in America again, recalling how satisfied we were as audiences in the 1990s, happy in a new Clinton administration, naively thinking that the deviance of Republican political swindles and backroom deals was over, or at least vanquished, for a while.

More than a few times, audiences that laughed at the historic absurdity of Cohn's lines in Berkeley Rep's production, instead sat silent, sometimes stunned by its renewed relevance and timeliness.

As Ethel Rosenberg says in the play, "History is about to crack wide open."

Could Prior the prophet or Louis the political philosopher have predicted the sickening combination of Kushner's play –America, politics and Russia– conspiring in such a darkly acidic way? Perhaps Eugene Ionesco might be a better playwright to take on the hideous absurdity of our post-millennial political farce.

Jim Reynolds, early 1970s in our home.
And as death seems to follow my every viewing of Angels, I just got news that SF Chronicle Arts Editor and TV critic David Wiegand died. I met him again for the first time in years, between shows of Angels on January 28.
"Wiegand distinguished himself as someone with empirical knowledge about every art form, high and low, from opera to ballet to country music to the latest trends in pop culture. Over the past several years, he had added his own voice to the paper’s roster of critics, providing incisive, award-winning television reviews."
And, to pile on, the same week, I heard news that one of my first stage directors, and a longtime family friend, Jim Reynolds, had passed. Reynolds was an English and Theatre professor at Ashland College (later University), and a longtime family friend. After our move to our home only blocks from the college, my parents soon connected to the small but vibrant community of liberal intellectuals in the city.

An angel atop Jim Reynolds' cat Christmas tree, 2003
Through the 1970s and '80s, Reynolds often joined our family for weekly Sunday dinners. Our ongoing array of pet cats found his lap an immediate place of comfort. Reynolds was also known for his annual cat decoration Christmas trees. 

His Christmas gifts to me and my brother and sister were always thought-provoking, like the double-album soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar, and a gyroscope. Even as children, we were never condescended, and joined in family discussions on all sorts of topics. We also participated in many capacities in the local summer theatre plays and musicals.

In a decided change of theme, Reynolds cast me in, among other shows, a somber November 1974 production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot as "a boy" aka a messenger of God(ot).

Jim Reynolds in 2008
That a small mostly conservative town's Brethren college would produce such a work is odd enough. Sure, there was more often lighter fare; musicals, comedies and farces. Through them all, I enjoyed a free extracurricular education in addition to some fine public schooling. 

In later years, Reynolds would travel to Kent State to see me in college productions, and all the way to New York City with my father and A.C. theatre director/professor Murray Hudson to see my 1988 SoHo production of Under the River, an ensemble musical set in the World Trade Center PATH station.

Don Brody, who played Estragon, died in 1998. Here's a remembrance by David Cogswell, who wrote about Brody's later days as a popular and accomplished musician in Hoboken, New Jersey. Brody's costar Don Vonder Embse, died a few years ago as well.

To portray, at age 14, the messenger of Godot, still remains a strange favorite. Perhaps that's why I thrill each time to watch the at-first holy –then confused– angel appear, as a sort of personal role model of holy ineptitude. 

Dan Vonder Embse and Don Brody in 'Waiting for Godot' at Ashland College 1974
I only appeared twice for a few minutes in each act, doing my junior high school homework in the dressing room most nights, or sitting offstage on a dusty padded chair in the wings as I watched the play, which, according to the archival news clipping I found from the Ashland University online archives, only ran for three nights, and cost a mere $1.50 admission.

Imagine that confused (and at the time, somewhat depressed) 14-year-old boy, not knowing he'd eventually write a novel about Catholic school boys where (spoiler alert) an angel doesn't crash through a ceiling, but swoops down from a gymnasium rafters.

Waiting for Godot write-up in the Ashland College 'Collegian.'
Imagine that he would, like Kushner, but in a much smaller way, wake up from a dream with an idea for a story (my fourth novel) and defy death, honor so many along the way, and make those dreams come true, thanks to the people he would meet, love, and eventually lose.

Perhaps, like Prior Walter, I did get a fevered dream of premonition, my older self warning me of a future full of artistic accomplishment, yes, but also one full of trepidation and tragedy.

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