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Play tough to tackle in several ways

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It takes a great deal of chutzpah for a theatre to stage Angels in America.

The play's subtitle, A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, openly declares that it perceives the world through a gay man's eyes. That was not always a compelling selling point for audiences in 1990, when the Tony Kushner script was first staged, or even today.

"Some people could find the content upsetting," says Michael Nathanson, artistic producer of the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre, which is closing its season with the 1993 Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play. "It's a raw piece of theatre. It deals with gay men. There is an implied sex scene. It's graphic about how AIDS ravages the body."

While the company has not received any subscriber cancellations or complaints, it is not naive enough to think that homophobia is not prevalent. That reality convinced Nathanson to program not only Angels in America but, for the first time in Winnipeg, the epic's companion piece, Perestroika, next fall to launch WJT's 25th anniversary season.

Nathanson was watching a performance of Shakespeare in the Ruins' all-male Romeo and Juliet a couple of years ago at Kelvin High School. When the guys playing the title characters kissed, it generated snickers and comments from the audience.

"For these 200 to 300 teenagers, it was a joke, an uncomfortable joke," says Nathanson, who calls Angels in America one of the greatest plays of the 20th century. "I knew then that this play needs to be performed. We need to understand each other.

"While, happily, AIDS is not the epidemic and death sentence it was when the play burst forth from the pen of Tony Kushner, homophobia is still a massive problem."

The risk of presenting Angels in America for any troupe is also economic. WJT has doubled its typical show budget to $100,000 to do it. The eight-person cast is huge for WJT, which during its 2009-10 season employed only seven actors in total.

"It's the largest scale show we've attempted," says Nathanson.

It doesn't get done much any more (the Canadian première was at the RMTC Warehouse in 1994), probably owing to the subject matter, the cost and the running time of three-plus hours. There are the technical demands of flying an angel, which a lot of theatres cannot do, either because of the expense or the stage size.

Kushner lets producers off the hook by noting in his text that the play benefits from a pared-down style of presentation. That's liberating for a company like WJT, working out of a five-metre-high Berney Theatre.

"We can't fly anything, not even a paper airplane," says Nathanson. "But we still want some wow factor and don't want someone walking on stage saying, 'Hi, angel here.' Our angel doesn't fly but she does something that's really cool."

Angels in America resists easy capsulizing or analysis. It's set in the late '80s when everything in the United States was in decline and there was an impending sense of apocalypse. Kushner, a Jewish, gay socialist, presents a cross-section of America with characters such as Prior Walter, a gay man with AIDS, and his Jewish lover, Louis Ironson, who flees after learning about his partner's illness. There are Joe Pitt, a closeted gay Mormon, and Harper, his pill-popping wife.

"I think what Kushner is saying is that we are all connected, that we have a responsibility to one another," says actor Nicholas Rice, who still counts himself a Winnipegger despite having lived in Toronto for the last 30 years. "We're each other's keepers."

Rice, a Kelvin graduate, plays Roy Cohn, the notorious Red-baiter and Republican power broker.

"I describe Roy Cohn as exquisitely vile," he says. "If a doctor's diagnosis is that he has AIDS, he says he can't, because that's what homosexuals get. He screws around with men, but he believes he's not homosexual. He can take black and say it's white."

The prototype for a character like Cohn is someone like Shakespeare's Richard III or Iago, he says.

"Roy is up there with those dudes and he's fascinating to watch," says Rice, who has been in half a dozen WJT productions.

Is he the most heinous character ever to grace the WJT stage?

Says Nathanson: "Well, we've had a lot of Nazis, so he's in good company.

Theatre preview

Angels in America, Millennium Approaches

Winnipeg Jewish Theatre

Opens tonight, to April 1

Tickets: $35 at 477-7478

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 21, 2012 D3

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