Wide wing span

Angels in America author Tony Kushner talks politics

Kushner rejects almost any pessimistic interpretation of his words. Despite the cynical psychoanalytic traditions to which he ascribes, he is a frank optimist. He speaks in a professorial lilt full of literary references, but cuts to the chase when discussing the genesis of Angels in America.

"I initially set out to write about gay men during the dawn of AIDS, and the culture shock they encountered under a right-wing administration," Kushner says. "My politics were pretty clear. I wanted to place a marginalized group in the center. Then, with rewrite after rewrite, the play became more spiritually tainted."

The "reactions" to which Tony Kushner refers are the speculations by gushing critics and political pundits who came between the feverishly praised Millennium Approaches and its hotly anticipated sequel, Perestroika. These commentators obsessed about the fact that the play's Angel of History makes her dramatic debut at the close of Millennium with a promise of profound revelation.

"Some national commentators, whose names I won't mention, wrote copy that basically predicted what the Angel might say in Perestroika," says Kushner. "They became overexcited about what they thought she would finally reveal. It was a burden for me. I began to feel like people thought I'd received a message from God. Finally, a columnist in a gay newspaper said, 'Tony's a playwright, not a prophet."

In every interview and each play, the playwright strongly distances himself from any kind of artistic leadership role. He despises capitalism and the illusion of individual supremacy he believes it creates. In two forewords and an afterword to the published script of Angels in America, Tony Kushner spreads wide collaborative credits for the play's final draft. In the dedication to the paperback edition, he cites the input--among friends, family, and professional associates--of "one-night stands."

When asked about the unconventional credit, Kushner turns a shade of red so deep you can hear it over the phone. "Well, I met this guy who was completely adorable, so of course I never saw him again," says Kushner.

This philosophy of messy, almost improvisational collaboration spreads to his feelings about a play's production. Kushner is adamant that the best stagings for Angels are stripped-down simple, full of last-minute ideas, maybe even a little crude.

"So many American critics have been overprotective of the stage, not letting theater people risk making fools of themselves or showing the rough edges," Kushner says. "When I teach classes, I always tell my students, 'The imperfection of theatrical illusion teaches critical consciousness.' If everything else works right, you can have this angel come down from the ceiling on creaky wires, with wings full of chicken feathers and a bad wig, and still create a thrilling kind of alternative reality, maybe even something like a religious experience."

Kushner is clearly unconcerned that most theater companies around the world won't have the $4.2 million that was poured into George C. Wolfe's Broadway production of Angels. "One of the finest versions I saw was staged by NYU students in a room full of cardboard boxes," Kushner says. "I hope production values aren't the focus of people's concerns with this play. It's not like we're saying, 'We're gonna do Phantom of the Opera, but we don't have the money to buy a chandelier that weighs five million pounds.' Why else would you see Phantom except for the expensive gimmicks? Certainly not for the music."

The Dallas Theater Center opens Tony Kushner's Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, directed by Richard Hamburger, March 21. Call 526-8857.

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