Anna Brennen is not afraid to think big. Even though her 20-year-old theater company, Stageworks, is often scrambling to stay afloat, Brennen takes on ambitious projects. The latest is Tony Kushner's play on AIDS, spirituality and Reagan-era politics, Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches.
"I have taken on massive undertakings before," said Brennen, whose staging of the Kushner play is the first by a local theater in the Tampa Bay area. "Doing Waiting for Godot was another one. There are only nine characters in this one, and I've had as many as 29 in Execution of Justice. I had 27 in The Rose Tattoo. I would say each one has its challenges."
Kushner's two-part epic _ Millennium Approaches and Perestroika _ won the best play Tony Awards in 1993 and 1994, respectively. Part one also won the Pulitzer Prize in drama. The last time it was seen in the area was the national tour that played Van Wezel Hall and Ruth Eckerd Hall in 1995. The Stageworks production opens Friday in the Shimberg Playhouse of Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.
"I think Kushner is a poet of the size and scope of someone like Beckett," Brennen said. "He has that absolutely incredible gift to combine abject suffering depicted onstage with humor. Both he and Beckett have it."
At its core, Angels in America is the story of Prior Walter (Jon Van Middlesworth), a gay man with AIDS, and his circle of friends in New York City, circa 1985-90. Subtitled "A gay fantasia on national themes," the play expands from Prior's dire predicament to cover social, sexual and political issues in daring fashion.
It will be interesting to see what a small company can do with the play. The Broadway production, directed by George C. Wolfe, was pretty spectacular. Millennium Approaches ended with a burst of music, a flash of light and a giant Angel crashing down through the ceiling of the set in a tangle of plaster, lathe and wiring. She hovered over the stage, her great white wings spread wide.
"Very Steven Spielberg," said Prior, terrified and writhing in his bed but still able to make a quip.
Stageworks isn't able to come close to that sort of effect in the Shimberg, which is small and has a low ceiling. But no problem, said Brennen, who saw the national tour, directed by Michael Mayer, at Ruth Eckerd Hall.
"The play is not about the special effects," she said. "I think it is about the relationships. The characters and their relationships are what have to be tight: passionately strong and believable. That's what was missing for me in the production at Eckerd. I did not get the relationships; it had to do with staging, special effects, the size of the auditorium. And I felt there was a lot missing. There were individual performances that were divine. But I got performances; I didn't get relationships."
Gary Luter, professor of theater at the University of Tampa, plays Roy Cohn, the red-baiting McCarthy-era lawyer who was a closeted homosexual and died of AIDS. Luter describes Angels in America as a warning.
"The big plays ask the big questions, but they don't necessarily answer them," he said. "Kushner's play is profound and hilarious, personal and political. He is asking us to worry, to recognize that we as a planet are not okay and to be prophets, all of us, if we are to make it through the next century human and intact."
If Millennium Approaches goes over well, Brennen may stage Perestroika next summer. "I'll take a good hard look at it, depending on how the audiences respond to this," she said. "But I do think it's considerably flawed compared to part one. I mean, this is a masterpiece."
Angels in America has been on the cultural back burner in recent years, but it will be back in the national spotlight in December, when Kushner's screen adaptation will debut on HBO. Directed by Mike Nichols, it has a starry cast, featuring Al Pacino as Roy Cohn, Meryl Streep as Hannah Pitt and Emma Thompson as the Angel. St. Petersburg's Patrick Wilson plays Joe Pitt.
Much has changed in the decade since Angels in America made such a splash. People with AIDS are living longer in the United States and Western Europe. Gay and lesbian characters are common on television. A new generation of conservative Republicans has power in Washington.
How does Kushner's play hold up?
"I think I'm too close to it to be able to comment at the moment," Brennen said.
However, the director did say that she thinks the gay issues of the play remain especially relevant. "If you want to just talk about gay, the politics are still very much present. The whole problem of men coming out, admitting they're gay, is still present. Gay men still marry to cover themselves. The inability of a lover to stay with a lover who is sick is still present.
"AIDS is still very much with us. We just don't talk about it. It's a huge problem in Africa and the Asian countries. And there's still no cure."