Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Angels in America: Millennium Approaches by Tony Kushner (1993)

Summary:  After being diagnosed with AIDS, Prior Walter is visited by the voice of an angel who ominously announces that "Millennium Approaches."  As Walter deals with the angel and his own relationship to Louis, other individuals and relationships are explored.  These include:
Joe and Harper--a transplanted Mormon couple drawn to homosexuality and Valium, respectively.
The very real Roy Cohn--attempting to hide the fact that he has full-blown AIDS by saying that it is Liver Cancer.
Belize--a sometimes drag queen, sometimes nurse who is loyal in his friendship to Prior and therefore skeptical of Louis.
The lives of these characters intertwine throughout the full-length play (set in the mid-80s in New York City) until finally, The Angel (no longer just a voice) bursts through Prior's ceiling proclaiming, "Greetings, Prophet.  The Great Work begins:  The Messenger has arrived."  The play ends and audiences are left to anticipate and speculate about Part Two:  Perestroika.

Thoughts:  I dreaded writing the plot summary above for days because so much happens in the first installment of Kushner's epic two-part drama.  However, though the play is expansive, the exploration of character is generally more important than the advancement of a very broad plot.

Very recently, my friend Katelyn Wood attended a lecture given by Meryl Streep (who won an Emmy for her work in Mike Nichols' filmed adaptation of the play) in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas at Austin.  Katelyn asked Streep about Tony Kushner and the continued relevance of Angels in America in a world where the play is increasingly less controversial.  Streep referred to Kushner as "the playwright of our time" and remarked extensively about the characters he creates, all extremely flawed in their humanity. 

All of the central characters in Angels in America are important to the advancement of plot; but moreover, they have their own flaws and personal struggles that do not always depend on interactions with others.  Often in the dramatic literature of the 20th century, rich characters are unveiled primarily through depictions of their interactions with others.  Kushner instead makes use of extensive monologues about emotions rather than argument scenes (which are often used to propel dramatic action).  While these monologues could quickly become whiny, redundant or simply boring...Kushner's ability to create multidimensional human characters makes us wonder what these characters are going to say, feel and do next.

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