To a contemporary theater audience, a naked man on stage for 30 seconds may not be as shocking as it was when Angels in America first opened 20 years ago. Nonetheless, Tony Kushner’s “Gay Fantasia on National Themes” remains an intense – and intensely relevant – piece of theater.
To open its ninth season as Asheville’s sole professional theatre, N.C. Stage will stretch its wings and take a closer look at this controversial Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning play, 10 years into the new millennium.
“Most of this play [involves] the most intimate scenes you can imagine between two people, and that’s what we do incredibly well,” says Angie Flynn-McIver, N.C. Stage’s cofounder and producing director. “Our space is great for that. Then there are these moments of theatrical magic that we’re just going to have to re-imagine in a way that is organic to our space and our production.”
This year, theaters across the country are revisiting Kushner’s pivotal script, which has been produced on Broadway and as an HBO miniseries. “I think partly it’s the anniversary; there’s a big revival happening off-Broadway this year at Signature Theatre [in New York],” says Flynn-McIver. “We have been speaking of doing it for years and it just sort of started to feel that this was the time to do it.”
But, Angels hasn’t been produced much regionally. That may have less to do with the content and more to do with the technical aspects of the production. “Tony Kushner himself says in the script that he wants the angel to crash through the ceiling,” says Flynn-McIver. “That’s not going to happen in our space … It’s not going to be crashing through the ceiling from the Earth Guild and the Open Door Boutique upstairs. … Still, it is going to be something wonderful.”
Angels in America had its North Carolina premiere in Charlotte back in 1996, “which is sort of worth looking into on its own,” says Flynn-McIver, “a microcosm of what happens to a city when it’s brought to confront itself over a work of art.” As one of six cities regionally selected for the production back in 1996, the uproar from religious conservatives led to cuts in Charlotte’s arts funding and a rather embarrassing moment in the national spotlight with a live debate on Good Morning, America.
Last year, the Actor’s Theater of Charlotte recalled the controversy dubbed by Creative Loafing as Charlotte’s “celebrated culture war” with the farce, Southern Rapture, written for the theater by Eric Coble.
N.C. Stage has already tested the content of Angels in America on local theater patrons as part of their “(For)Play Reading Series,” which strips the production down as actors simply read the script in front of the audience. “The response we got to [the staged reading] was amazing,” recalls managing director Amanda Leslie. “It is Reader’s Theatre; there’s nothing other than the words that they were saying. I think that was really powerful.”
Plays rarely win such prestigious awards as a Pulitzer for spectacle alone. Beyond the risqué moment of frontal nudity is a formidable piece of literature that addresses societal fears worth discussing: religious prejudice, homosexuality and AIDS. This set of issues is rather timely for audiences to consider as we approach the upcoming elections, when the media hype is highest on the political “trigger” topics of gay marriage and health care.
“I guess the flip side is that, for some people, we’re a theater that would do Driving Miss Daisy,” says Flynn-McIver, “so I want them to know we’re a theater that does a huge range of material. We’re certainly not all things to all people, and we’re not setting out to be that. But this play may bring in some people who haven’t been in a while, or who are looking for that thing to really challenge them.”
The ninth season
N.C. Stage has a diverse season in the works this year. Immediately following Angels in America will be the original stage adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life, written by local actor and playwright Repoley and staged in collaboration with his Immediate Theater Project. “I think people come for the comfort and the familiar story. There’s nothing shocking and new, though it’s tweaked every year a little bit,” says Flynn-McIver. “I cry every year.”
Shortly after Valentine’s Day, the season continues with the light-hearted 1960s sex comedy Boeing-Boeing by Marc Camoletti, whose play Don’t Dress for Dinner has been performed regionally as well.
“This is actually a prequel to Don’t Dress for Dinner,” describes Flynn-McIver. “One’s a ne’er-do-well and the other is the sort of hapless friend of ne’er-do-well and it’s the shenanigans that they get into. It’s our funny piece for the year. You’re going to want that palate cleanser between Angels in America and One Flea Spare.”
Naomi Wallace’s gritty, poetic piece, One Flea Spare, premiered in London in 1995, and is slated for an April 2011 performance at N.C. Stage.
Set in a quarantine home in Black Plague-era London, the play could seem very dark. “But, you know the end is not,” says Flynn-McIver. “I think ultimately there is so much hope and redemption in this play that in some ways it is the ideal companion piece to Angels in America. They both are exploring this idea of, ‘How do we address a society that is paralyzed with fear?’ and ‘What does this mean to us as human, moral beings?’ It’s not light, but it’s important.”
The season winds down in June 2011 with Tennessee William’s classic The Glass Menagerie. This bittersweet play wraps up the season with another view of relationships in an intimate setting.
Overall the season gravitates toward theater that lends itself to the intimacy of the performance space and leaves the audiences asking questions.
“When you have an experience with a work of art, whether it’s a painting, a dance, a piece of music or a play, you don’t have the whole experience all at once,” says Flynn-McIver. “You have the experience, you look at the painting, and then it stays with you and it continues to evolve with you.”
N.C. Stage itself has continued to evolve from a fledgling theater company to a provocative, professional asset to the local arts community. Not only are the productions produced locally, but professional local artists create them.
— Wendi Loomis can be reached at email@example.com.
who: N.C. Stage Company
what: Angels in America: Millennium Approaches
where: 15 Stage Lane, downtown Asheville (across from Zambra).
when: Wddnesday, Oct. 13 to Nov. 7 (Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets range from $16 to $28. Season subscriptions on sale now, offering 12 to 25 percent off ticket prices. More at ncstage.org)