Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Angels in America

Never Done: Saw a stage production of Angels in America (Part 1: Millennium Approaches)

Angels in America was first performed twenty years ago - just after I moved to Portland, but before I was paying attention to theater, aside from what I had done as a kid or the political street theater I had done in college. At the time, I was absorbed in everything that would have made me and Angels a natural fit: didactic left wing activism, getting close for the first time to people with HIV/AIDS, Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, my first forays into Jewish community, and although I had come out some years earlier, my first long-term romance with a woman. I wouldn't encounter Angels for another five years, but when I did, I was riveted.

By now I have read Angels in America probably ten times -- perused it even. (OK, this is a total distraction; Ellen Langford just taught me that the word "peruse" means to read or study carefully and at length, not to read quickly, or glance through, as I have always thought.) So I have perused Angels, studied it scene by scene, broken it down, and yes, seen the filmed HBO version. But until now, had never seen it on stage. But my mental images of how it lives on stage have been strong -- I guess from people's stories of the angel breaking through the ceiling of the Walter Kerr theater. After all these years, and all that build up, I guess it was inevitable that the Signature Theater production after the cast change would be a disappointment. First of all, it is almost unbearable to me that after waiting four and a half months to see it, I saw the first performance without Zachary Quinto in the role of Louis. (Adam Driver stepped into the role.) But mostly, it felt .... safe in a way that is out of place with what the characters are living through. I wanted the play to transport me, shake to my core like it did every time I read it -- and even the way the HBO production did. But instead, I felt like I was sitting around with the actors on soft couches, and reading the play aloud together. Which is not a terrible thing. It's a comfortable thing, in fact. But transporting it's not.

I guess it's like when they make The Hobbit into a movie. You have such strong images of Bilbo Baggins and the Shire that anyone else's images might pale in comparison. Or even just match yours in intensity, which might feel like paling, if you had high expectations.

So what's the lesson? Don't read great books ten times? Don't form expectations? Don't go to the theater? I don't think so. I think the message is more that when life gives you a comfortable evening with wonderful actors, pour a cup of tea, lean back on a pillow, and start turning your well-worn pages.

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