Angel Wings Dusted Off for Ogling by Kushner Groupies

I can't believe its been 20 years since Tony Kushner's Angels in America first premiered. Remember (or maybe you don't, youthful blog reader) when Ronald Reagan was the worst thing that ever happened to us?

For the uninitiated, Angels, which was born at San Francisco's Eureka Theater in 1991, evokes an America in which we are poised on the precipice of apocalyptic doom. Kushner's vision of a morally bankrupt America is one in which the climate of the Reagan years is both the natural legacy of Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn as well as the virulent seed of the modern-day plague -- AIDS and its metaphors.

Years back, Kushner told a Berkeley crowd (in an absurdly modest statement), that he attributed some of the success of Angels in America to timing. He noted that the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play arrived on Broadway at the beginning of "Clinton's 15 minutes. It's a Reagan-hating play and that's one of the things I like about it," he said.

So, when Brad Rosenstein interviewed Kushner at the Herbst theater last weekend, I was hoping to hear what Kushner thought of Angels in Obama's 15 minutes. How does Kushner think his play fares in the yet more cataclysmic, even more morally bankrupt 2010?

But as the curator of the Museum of Performance & Design, Rosensten had other matters at hand. His interview marked the opening of the museum's exhibit, More Life! "Angels in America" at Twenty. And so, he and Kushner talked stage design -- how did different performances manage the angel wing mechanics, make a book burst into flames, a feather fall straight down.

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And while some of us might have preferred to hear Kushner expound on politics, religion, history -- or even talk more about Project Runway (he's a fan), one needs to give the feather its due: Over twenty years ago, as if he were night-visited by his very own angel, Tony Kushner saw the dramatic climax to his theatrical masterpiece in a dream. The image revealed to him was of an angel crashing through the ceiling of a man dying from AIDS. In waking life, Kushner connected the dream's dots to form the play... the apocalyptic crash, the disease, the messianic wish fulfillment. And, the logical jump, when contemplating angels... whilst in America, is the Angel Moroni -- and Mormonism -- all key themes to the play.

And, apparently, the impetus for the museum exhibition was the appearance of angel wings. Sandra Woodall, who designed the costumes for the original Eureka production in 1991, had donated her collection to the museum. Rosenstein felt the wings needed to have more life.

The Eureka's original wings are accompanied by a pair from the Broadway production of Perestroika, the second half of Angels, ACT's wings, and the pair -- with the 12-foot wingspan -- worn by Emma Thompson in the HBO movie version.

The museum exhibit, upstairs at the Herbst Theater, follows the play's journey from Kushner's notebooks and scripts to its various incarnations -- the San Francisco premiere, the Broadway opening, the opera, the HBO film.

The exhibition is a treasure trove for Angels-heads; one can pause at a recreation of Kushner's desk, where he wrote the play -- there's even a stash of Entenmanns's donuts there, a recreation of the playwright's sustenance. There are props, manuscripts, video clips, photos -- including photography by Avedon and Leibovitz -- and an amusing "Jew-fro" snap shot of the author as a young man. The exhibit showcases an array of original costumes and poster art from productions in Japan, Israel, Hungary and other unlikely countries.

The exhibition also features photographs from the current Signature Theatre Company revival in New York.

In March of 2011, The Signature Theatre, in conjunction with the Public Theater will stage the New York premiere of Tony Kushner's latest play, The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures. The new play explores "revolution, radicalism, marriage, sex, prostitution, politics, real estate, unions of all kinds and debts both repaid and unpayable."

I can't wait for 2030 to find out what kind of junk food sustained Kushner during this creation process.

More Life! "Angels in America" at Twenty runs through March 26, 2010 at the Museum of Performance & Design in San Francisco. For more information visit mpdsf.org.

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