angels in america

Portland Playhouse is calling all angels.

Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” is now 20 years old, which is astonishing, because it still seems so fresh and such a provocation in so many ways.

One way I think of it? As a utopian proposal for how the art of theater ought to be conducted, a manifesto of sorts.  Utopias and manifestos are best at describing what is missing — from a society, from an art form, from the human heart. If we think of “Angels in America” as a utopian  project, it proposes a theater that is free to:

  • invoke angels
  • tell painful stories of personal betrayals
  • create predicaments that no one can get out of without some supernatural assistance
  • philosophize
  • recreate historical figures and involve them in hallucinations
  • talk about whatever it wants and anybody it wants to talk about
  • assume that people have sex and is willing to discuss and represent that sexuality frankly
  • wrestle with villains
  • situate complex gay or Jewish or African American characters squarely in the center of its action
  • get angry or sad
  • occupy the very center of American society with its representations and its implications

This theater can employ limited means, meaning that its stage effects can show reveal the very mirrors and wires that make them possible. That’s OK as long as it takes itself seriously (without abandoning its sense of humor), as long as it’s as smart as it can be, as long as it doesn’t back down or take the easy way out, because really that’s more painful than anything this theater has to say.

The brilliance of Kushner, of course, is that “Angels in America” doesn’t just propose this ideal: “Angels in America” is that theater in action in front of us. It’s not a description of a theater that might have important things to say but one that actually says important things.


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