Angels In America: Perestroika at the Wilma

The Wilma Theater opened its 2012-13 season with the enthralling second half of playwright Tony Kushner’s Angels in America that deals with the Aids crisis and the Cold War.  Directed by Blanka Zizka, the play is a tour-de-force of acting and staging.  

We resume the epoch story of Prior Walter, (Aubrey Deeker) a gay man who lives in NYC and has been diagnosed with AIDS.  His lover Louis, (Benjamin Pelteson) a left-wing ideologue, leaves him and begins an unlikely  fling with a closeted Mormon lawyer, who works for Roy Cohen, (Stephen Novelli) the rightwing fixer and shady lawyer.  

More after the jump.

Amidst the chaos of the AIDS epidemic, Kushner creates a cosmic-scale portrait of America through legendary characters: ancient rabbis, Mormon housewives, neoconservatives, blind revolutionaries, closeted gay men and imaginary travel agents.  Together, their lives intersect and get blow apart with profound symbolism and brilliant comedy.  Director Zizka remarks: “Kushner’s characters get themselves into deeply messy situations in Perestroika.  Everybody seems to be worse off than in Millennium Approaches.  However, in critical moments, each character finds some amount of generosity.  Yet in order to change, we have to find generosity and be open to accept others.”

You will encounter angels descending from on high, Prior wrestling with the Angel and begging her to let him live, despite his suffering from AIDS.  There  are golden dancing alephs projected on the stage to excellent effect.  “We live past hope” he says.  It is inadequate – “bless me anyway.”  

In a 1994 interview with The New York Times, Kushner explains that “The aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the seed word, the God letter.  This is why in the play, God is referred to by the Angel as ‘the Aleph Glyph.”  The real name of God is, of course, unutterable.”

Belize (James Ijames), a male nurse, is Prior’s friend and gets some of the best lines in the play.   Taking care of the racist Roy Cohen,  he tells Louis, who loves the idea of America in the abstract.  America  is “terminal, angry and mean” and lying in a hospital bed.  In one of the most poignant scenes in the play, as Belize takes Cohen’s experimental AIDS drugs, Louis reluctantly recites the kaddish over Cohen.  The ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Mary Elizabeth Scallon), who Cohen sentenced to death for her alleged communism, joins him in the kaddish.  

This promises to be an exciting season for the Wilma.  Their next production, Satchmo at the Waldorf, begins November 16th.  

Wilma Theatre, 265 South Broad Street, (215) 546-7824.  Discounted tickets available for students, groups or anyone in their 20s.

Prepare Yourself: Angels in America at the Wilma Theatre

Prepare yourself, announces the Angel, in Tony Kushner’s 1991 Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, playing at the Wilma Theatre through July 1st.  Indeed, prepare yourself to witness a rare theatrical event, a contemporary classic play by an American-Jewish playwright who weaves together Mormons, Jews, the ghost of Emma Rosenberg, Roy Cohen, Ronald Reagan and African-American drag queens.  

This inspired production is directed by Wilma’s founding Artistic Director, Blanka Zizka, Zizka writes:

“The AIDS crisis of the 1980s provoked Tony Kushner to write a play of a scope and complexity that, I believe, we had not seen before, nor have we seen since, in this country.”  “The playwright gives the play the subtitle, ‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,’ and clearly points out his own sexual identity and establish the vantage point for his imagination.  Through one of his characters (the Oldest Living Bolshevik in Perestroika) Kushner asks old but profoundly existential questions that reverberate throughout the whole play. . . . where do we come from? What are  we doing? . . . the play engages these questions on personal, philosophical, political and cosmic levels.”

More after the jump.
With a sparse and effective set designed by Matt Saunders, Angels delivers some outstanding performances, particularly Kate Czajkowski (Harper) and Stephen Novelli (Roy Cohen).  

Angels takes places in 1985, during the Reagan presidency when AIDS victims were often demonized and homophobia was rampant.  Even after twenty years, its themes of millennial disaster and foreboding, both personal and political — for the two are inextricable for Kushner — may be more relevant today than they were then.  In a program note, Kushner writes: “I feel going back now, that the early ’90s, the late ‘802, for all the horrors of the AIDS epidemic, were comparatively innocent and carefree times compared to where we are now. . . .so the play and the times, both feel darker to me now than they did back then.”  

Indeed with a Republican Mormon running for President, a Democratic president who professes in his memoir the New Deal is over and cites Reagan as his political model the play’s themes of identity, power, and freedom seem quite relevant today.   Kushner must have been touched by one of the Angel’s feathers for the writing possesses an aura rarely found in contemporary theatre.  Kushner has written an epoch play about what it means to be an American – whether a Communist, a neo-conservative leftist, a closeted gay Mormon, or a scion of an old WASP family — Angels asks the tough questions.  

The play opens with an old Rabbi giving a eulogy for an old woman — Louis’ grandmother — he’s never met.   But he knows this woman, he says, since she was from the old world and crossed over, bringing with her, her lineage and her memory, to be planted in the memories and bodies of her family.  In Angels, Kushner explores many “thresholds of revelation” where appearance and reality become confused.  Lines are crossed – religious, political, and sexual and laws broken.   The woman, says the rabbi, is the “last of the Mohicans.”  

What does it mean to cross over, to traverse unfamiliar ground, as all the characters in Kushner’s play do?  To be an ancient Hebrew means to be separated, to be on the other side, to be migratory, rootless, a stranger.  Indeed all the characters in Angels — whether Jew or Mormon, gay or straight, Communist or Republican, black or white — are displaced, as “the old orders are spiraling apart and lies are surfacing.”  

Kushner questions what it means to be a citizen of a participatory democracy that seems to exclude so many of its own citizens.  Can democracy succeed in America, Louis asks, at one point.  Kushner handles such weighty philosophical and moral question ss a Talmudic scholar cum playwright, pulling them this way and that with fully embodied characters that are not, thankfully, the vehicle for political ideas but flawed, fleshy, messy, ambivalent and contradictory human beings struggling with what it means to be alive on earth.

Prepare yourself to be uncomfortable, to laugh and to pray for Fall to arrive (but not yet!) so we can witness the second Act of this powerful American drama.

In the fall, Wilma will open its 2012-13 season with Angels in American, Part Two: Perestroika, which continues the epoch saga of these engaging characters.  

On Monday, June 28th at 7:30pm, there will be a free Community Conversation on “The Impact of HIV/AIDS in Philadelphia, sponsored by FIGHT.  Speakers representing Philadelphia’s FIGHT, the Mazzoni Center, the William Way LGBT Center and The City of Philadelphia Mayor’s Office for LGBT Affairs will discuss current topics and issues regarding HIV/AIDS in Philadelphia with an audience Q & A to follow.  The Wilma Theatre will also present a comprehensive exhibit which will examine the impact of HIV/AIDS in Philadelphia through cultural material.  

Angels in America at the Wilma Theatre, (215) 546-7824.  265 W. Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA.  Tickets range from $39 – $66 and are available at the Wilma Box Office or calling the theatre.  Discounted tickets are available for students, groups or anyone in their 20s.  

Review: The New 60: Outliving Yourself and Reinventing a Future

THE NEW 60: Outliving Yourself and Reinventing a Future, by Robert Levithan seems to have been compiled at age 59. Gay, AIDS positive and “in the 1990s the ‘designated die-er’ in my circle”, the author exudes the profound joy of one blessed with unexpected years of life who has attained through the new medications, luck and self-care: “extraordinary health.” His sadness, given AIDS means he cannot responsibly provide his seed to father children, is also reflected in this honest narrative. A therapist in private practice, and active volunteer with Friends In Deed, a crisis center for those with life-threatening illnesses, he is also an active blogger. The New 60 is a reprinting of about thirty-three of Robert Levithan’s on-going blogs.

Frankly, as Robert Levithan presents himself in writing, I found it hard to like the man. His style is flooded with a stressing of associations with persons and things accomplished — the Huffington Post, O — The Opra Magazine, having had a relationship with the photographer Peter Hujar, with another man who had “an Oscar and some Tonys,” and a “Venezuelan director,” his nephew being a “Lambda award-winning author,” being photographed by Robert Maplethrope, upcoming travels to Turkey, Greece, South Africa, etc. And an entire chapter that opens: “Of late, I have been dating mostly younger men —  much younger men.” And, further on in the chapter: “My lovers have been my teachers, my comrades, my students.”
I felt I was missing the point of the book, something that a target audience would know right away. So I e-mailed Robert Levithan to find out the intended target audience, given he hadn’t reached his sixties at the time of writing, the title wasn’t conveying well. He called almost immediately: “I have a real desire is to reach young men and women with the message that they don’t have to be afraid of getting older. A lot of people, particularly gay men, fear passing 40.”

Concerns about HIV & Gay Suicide

Levithan told me he was deeply affected by Bob Bergeron’s suicide. Bergeron had written a book titled “The Right Side of Forty: The Complete Guide to Happiness for Gay Men at Midlife and Beyond,” but it never was published despite a signed book contract, because he killed himself prior to the volume’s release. Levithan also of his concern for: “Narcissistically driven gay men that, when they lose attractiveness believe their life is going to be over.” He also writes of the dangers of vanity and the great beauty of “other-bodied people.”

Levithan further explained on our call: “The myth is those with HIV have a ‘shelf life.’ I show how to keep going and grow from it.” His goal is to offer an alternative view, that other chapters of life are possible, after 40, with/or without AIDS. It’s still not clear to me how a title “The New 60” would attract a readership of those fearing moving into their forties or fifties, nor what he knows, yet, about being in one’s 60s or beyond. His optimism and advice is abundant.

Questions of Boundaries

Given Robert Levithan is a therapist, his range of choices of partners seems strange. Surely he is aware of the problem of power differentials between people that arise not only professionally, but also by age. So I asked him: How do you view it as ethical to date young men?” Levithan first addresses this by explaining that he advocates recreational sex, not only sex inside of relationships and views it as a need of most men and some women. He also explains, as he does in the book, how having young lovers allows him to give them the mature mentoring he received from three relationships with older men when he was young. And then points out, as what he seems to consider a redeeming factor, a psychodynamic awareness he offers in the book: that perhaps dating young men is a form of avoidance of long-term relationships. “Besides,” he adds,  “I’m not a predator, young men approach me.”

“How do you tell someone you have AIDS?” I feel I have to ask, since safe sex isn’t a topic addressed in the book. “I really don’t have to; it’s listed in my profile on dating sites.” So I further inquired: “With so much that is fascinating to do in life, why is your ability to attract sexual partners a preponderant theme in your book?” His response: “In the HIV community, the HIV positive folks tend to feel they won’t have an opportunity; that their sex life is over. So I portray my own flawed journey, as a source of inspiration.”

Jewish Values Considerations

Since the author provides a chapter in which he strongly advocates honestly, I will give my honest opinion. I wouldn’t put this book into the hands of most young gay men under 40, or young people elsewhere in the spectrum of gender, despite it’s depiction of some beautifully realized Jewish values – particularly visiting the sick, honoring the dead, volunteerism and philanthropy. Actually, it is when he is sharing mitzvah-centered vignette’s and not talking about himself, that I find Robert Levithan is at his best.  

As a liberal rabbi, I’ve taught young people — gay and straight, the mitzvah of shmirat ha-guf, care for the body, the practices of safe sex, nutrition and exercise and the value of waiting on an intimate physical relationship until one is with someone likely to be enduringly beloved. This author’s values just don’t go there. THE NEW 60: Outliving Yourself and Reinventing a Future constitutes a provocative read for mature adults, and can lead to meaningful discussion. This book may well also be a helpful gift for those who tend to isolate, and/or lose their perspective on how life can continue in its joys and wonders in the wake of severe traumas, like contracting AIDS.