Backstage visits with cast members from Forum Theatre's 'Angels in America'

By Jane Horwitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Backstage visited with five of the eight cast members in Forum Theatre's production of "Angels in America" to find out how they've approached their roles and what being in such a complicated, exhausting show feels like. Tony Kushner's two-play epic, subtitled "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," has been extended through Nov. 28 at Round House Theatre Silver Spring.

It's all about the footgear for Jennifer Mendenhall, who, like several of her colleagues, plays multiple characters. "The specificity of the feet is what helps me sort of flip from one to the other," explains Mendenhall. She kicks off the action in the first play, "Millennium Approaches" (the second play is "Perestroika"), as an ancient rabbi. He "has a little stiffness in his left leg and he has a little bit of a hitch to his gait. . . . And then Henry [a doctor] likes to go up on his heels and do that thing that men do when they jingle coins in their pockets. And then Hannah's [a proper Mormon matron] feet are completely parallel. . . . There is no brushing of the upper inner thighs together," notes the actress.

In his first professional role, 22-year-old Ro Boddie, a recent graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts (where "Millennium" director Jeremy Skidmore discovered him), primarily plays the AIDS nurse Belize, a friend of AIDS sufferer Prior Walter (Karl Miller) and Prior's tortured, fair-weather lover Louis (Alexander Strain). Boddie and the other actors roll scenery and props on and off during transitions. "I'm just constantly going and going. If I'm not moving furniture, I'm onstage acting," says Boddie. "It's just constant momentum that just keeps me present and ready and just going onstage with this energy each and every single time, setting the stage on fire."

Jim Jorgensen plays the one "real-life" character -- hotshot lawyer (and onetime sidekick of commie-hunting Sen. Joe McCarthy in the 1950s) Roy Cohn, who died of AIDS in 1986. Kushner depicts Cohn as a manic mover and shaker, denying to the end his homosexuality. "Angels in America" takes place mostly in the 1980s, when AIDS was invariably terminal.

Is he having fun playing the wildly over-the-top Cohn? "How can you not absolutely relish the chance to go up there and fly that high?" asks Jorgensen. "When it clicks, it's the most exhilarating thing that you can have, because there are no small moments."

Strain so empathizes with his character Louis, that the first Saturday the company did "Millennium" and "Perestroika" one after the other, he had a nearly uncontrollable urge to interrupt Belize, who was berating Louis for his cowardice and self-absorption, to say, "Just please stop yelling at me!" The trick has been "finding a way to somehow make [Louis] sympathetic. He's making choices that are mistakes. He's not necessarily a terrible person," says Strain.

Miller has played Hamlet, but even Hamlet isn't visited by an actual angel (played by Nanna Ingvarsson, who also does multiple roles) and who calls him a prophet. "Kushner lavishes a great deal on Prior," says the actor. "He gives him this splendid sense of humor and this incredible style and poise. . . . Frankly, I never thought I'd be right for it. Because I'm used to playing really messed-up people -- people who are defined by some sort of irreconcilable crack in themselves. . . . Up until opening night I had no idea if my inner reserves of fabulousness were going to cut it."

The actors all say they'll miss "Angels in America" once it's over. They've lived with it since rehearsals began in August. Says Boddie, "I try to soak up every performance that we have, as if it were the first one and the last one, because who knows when I'll be able to do this caliber of acting with these actors?"

YPT's Snider honored

"It's really a life-changing event for me," David Andrew Snider says of the $100,000 award the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation will bestow on him through Young Playwrights' Theater, which Snider has led since 2005 as producing artistic director and CEO. YPT teaches playwriting in local schools, working annually with some 850 kids in grades 4 through 12. The money is intended to help Snider remain at the nonprofit. He says he'll use it to retire student loans and perhaps take business classes.

At a private April ceremony, Snider, along with four other leaders of local nonprofits, will be honored for "using his passion for theater and community service to give a voice to young people through playwriting."

It means, he says, "I can work for nonprofits for another 30 years because I can afford to do it now."

The kids who study playwriting one day a week with YPT produce 500 original plays each school year, Snider says. All are performed in the classrooms, and 25 go on to be produced in YPT's annual festival and Express Tour, performed by professional actors. At rehearsals, Snider says he'll remind student playwrights that "everybody's here and they're working together and they're getting a paycheck today because you wrote what you wrote. . . . Your creative thoughts can actually manifest in the world."

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