“The rewriting of history is a dangerous thing,” said Ryan Rilette. Round House Theatre’s producing artistic director took time during tech week to talk about history and how we remember, two overarching themes of his most recent project, a collaborative staging with Olney Theatre Center of Tony Kushner’s watershed “Angels in America.”
“A lot of people don’t know our government’s horrific response to the AIDS crisis,” he explained. “And not knowing history means history can repeat itself.”
Which is why Montgomery County’s two leading theaters have chosen this moment in time—the 25th anniversary of Kushner’s powerful, provocative two-part play and an election season that has brought issues of equality, prejudice and civil rights boiling up to the surface of the American psyche—to kick off a two-year artistic partnership by presenting the Tony-winning tale of 1980s-era politics, activism and hypocrisy in rotating repertory at Round House.
“At the time, AIDS was a flashpoint in any discussion—the thing everybody latched onto,” said Rilette. “But AIDS was the jumping-off point for Tony Kushner to talk about politics.”
“This play addresses the question of what generates political power; what it means to espouse an ideal as opposed to a political action,” added Jason Loewith, Olney Theatre Center’s artistic director. “It’s about progress in the world of civil rights. And it’s the best political play ever written in the 20th century.”
Arguably the most famous, as well.
“Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” made its world debut in the summer of 1991 at San Franciso’s Eureka Theater. Epic and complex, it brought together seemingly diverse elements—ghosts, McCarthyism, medical trials, religion, the closet, celestial visitations and a terrifying epidemic of “gay cancer” that made prominent politicians laugh–as it inspired a generation of civil rights activists and jumpstarted an unprecedented movement toward equality and empowerment for what is now known as the LGBT community.
“Today we have a generation that has only known AIDS as a treatable disease,” Loewith pointed out. “Back then, it was so immediate—so many people saw their friends die.”
And that—no spoiler alert needed at this point—is the heart of “Angels in America.” Set in the ’80s, the Pulitzer, Tony and Drama Desk award-winning work starts with the story of a Manhattan couple and branches out to the backrooms of Washington D.C. and even up to heaven, featuring the spectacular entrance of an angel and incorporating the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg as it brilliantly weaves history, fantasy and speculation into a story of America.
Two stories, technically, because Kushner created a pair of plays, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” that are separately presentable—and this Round House-Olney collaboration will stage them both.
“It feels very new for the D.C. region, which is not known for its inter-theater collaboration,” said Loewith, who will direct “Part One: Millennium Approaches.” “The ease with which this collaboration developed, and how smooth it has been, has been unusual. We don’t see our theaters as competitive, and that’s made it healthier.”
That has also made it cost-effective. Rilette, tasked with directing “Part Two: Perestroika,” explained that “it’s a giant, giant play, and it costs a lot of money to produce.” Just creating wings, he noted, required the services of a costume artist for an entire month. “An epic play like this deserves an epic production,” he insisted. “It’s difficult, but it’s not impossible, especially when we can share resources, staffs and money.”
Money well spent, both directors concur, because “Angels in America” is the kind of theatrical classic that time has burnished. Rilette believes it is a story that deserves to be told and retold, particularly now. “The sign of a great work of art is that it can be revisited,” he said. “People bring themselves to it and create their own story. Like any great work of art you see things you never saw before each time you come to it. And new lenses open up because of the way the world has changed.”
Indeed, the way the world has changed seems to have made “Angels in America” more watchable. Loewith noted that when the play was first written, audiences had to wait a year after watching Part I to see Part II and resolve what Rilette calls “the definition of a cliffhanger.”
“They’re free-standing plays; you can see one without the other,” he said. “But the best way is to see Part I and then Part II, and you can do that here separately, or you can ‘binge-watch.’”
He laughed. “Netflix has changed everything,” he said.
And technology has changed things, too. While “Angels in America” was conceived by Kushner to be a scaled-down work of minimal theatricality, its spectacular elements—flying angels, for example, and dream-like colors, lights and sound—are now easier to achieve
“We love this play,” said Loewith, “and we wanted to take a crack at the Mount Everest of American drama—one of the Himalayan peaks, anyway.”
“Angels in America” runs through Oct. 30 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Opening night for “Part II: Perestroika” is Saturday, Oct. 1, at 7:30 pm. On Oct. 5, 8, 15, 19, and 22, “Part I: Millennium Approaches” will be performed as a matinee at 2 p.m. and Part II will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $30. Call 240-644-1100 or visit www.roundhousetheatre.org or www.olneytheatre.org for details.