In 1993, when the first part of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” opened on Broadway after a long period of development on the West Coast, it was immediately celebrated by critics and embraced by audiences.
The New York Times’ Frank Rich led a resounding chorus of critical praise, calling the piece “a true American work in its insistence on embracing all possibilities in art and life.” The two-part play is a sweeping, audacious treatment of the Reagan era that touches on the AIDS crisis, American politics, religion and the environment, while telling an intensely personal story about a group of New Yorkers. It won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for drama and quickly earned a reputation as one of the most important plays of the late 20th century.
But despite the play’s popular success and critical traction, Buffalo audiences have never seen a complete production of both parts. That will change Thursday, when the Subversive Theatre Collective opens the first section of the play, called “Millennium Approaches.” It will follow that with the second part, “Perestroika,” featuring a different director and cast, Jan. 17. The two separate productions will run on alternate nights in the Manny Fried Playhouse through Feb. 16.
The dual productions make up by far the most ambitious project in the 10-year history of the Subversive Theatre, a company that has never shied away from large-scale plays that other small, grass-roots theaters might avoid.
“It’s right at the top of the list of shows that I’ve always wanted Subversive Theatre to do,” said Subversive founder and artistic director Kurt Schneiderman, who fell in love with the show after seeing the Broadway production, with F. Murray Abraham in the role of odious lawyer Roy Cohn, in 1993. “It’s just about the most brilliant application of really political issues to an incredibly clever and inventive artistic form, a really powerful storyline [and] crucial issues that need so badly to be brought up. It just seemed to me everything that Subversive Theatre ought to do.”
Mounting Kushner’s two-part epic with separate directors and casts is an unusual approach to this complex and unwieldy work, which is typically performed in repertory with a single cast.
Previously in Buffalo, Studio Arena Theatre presented the first part of the play in 1997 as part of its short-lived series of alternative plays, and later presented a staged reading of “Perestroika” with the same cast. Buffalo United Artists also produced a staged reading of “Millenium Approaches” in 2006.
Part of the reason Buffalo has never seen a full production of both parts, Schneiderman suggested, is because of the difficulty of securing actors who can devote themselves full time to a semiprofessional production.
Schneiderman solved that by enlisting directors Christopher Standart and Christian Brandjes to assemble their own casts for “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” respectively. That way, actors can perform in the play and hold on to their day jobs. What might be lost in cohesiveness, Schneiderman suggested, will be made up for by the rare opportunity to see Kushner’s well-drawn characters from two distinct angles.
Standart, who gravitated toward “Millenium Approaches” because of its largely realistic bent (“Perestroika” contains more magical elements), praised Kushner for anticipating the issues that would preoccupy Americans in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
“People seem to be obsessed with what went on during the Reagan era. It was certainly a big turning point economically and socially for the country, where so many of these situations that we are in now are a direct result of that era,” he said. “Some of what Tony Kushner wrote was almost like a prophesy.”
For Schneiderman, the productions represent the realization of a long-delayed dream and the perfect fusion of his company’s artistic and activist mission with the concerns of Kushner and his characters.
“It takes on a lot of issues around the AIDS crisis, and the total hypocrisy of the right wing and how it responded to that in the early days of the AIDS crisis,” he said. “In a bunch of very unique and surreal ways, it connects all of this to the legacy of McCarthyism in America, it connects to the environmental crisis, it connects to all sorts of racial and religious issues as well. It seemed like very much the kind of thing Subversive Theatre ought to be doing.”