"Angels in America: Perestroika"

Through Aug. 22

Signature Theatre

Tickets: 703/218-6500

In Part Two of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Angels in America," playwright Tony Kushner designates one actor to play four different roles -- two men and two women. When Signature's literary director, Marcia Gardner, read the script, she says, she noticed that and thought, "Look at everything you get to do in this. Maybe I'll audition."

The play, set in 1986, deals with the politics of the AIDS epidemic. One of its victims was lawyer Roy Cohn, a prosecutor in the trial of accused spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953. In his final days, Cohn has visions of Ethel, one of the characters played by Gardner. Her other roles include Cohn's doctor, Henry; Prelapsarianov, the oldest living Bolshevik; and Hannah Pitt, the mother of Joe Pitt, a married Mormon who leaves his wife after admitting he's gay.

"I used to support myself acting," says Gardner, "but I don't do much anymore. Once the reality became clear, especially in Part Two, I found that it's one of the most difficult experiences I've ever had in the theater. I'm playing four characters, two of whom, the women, have very clear emotional journeys and climaxes, but it's constantly interrupted by having to switch into the other role." (Pictured above, from left, Gardner as Ethel Rosenberg and Hannah Pitt.)

Not to mention getting into and out of the costumes and makeup. "I would not be doing this without my dresser," Gardner says. "I would be on stage in my underwear if not for Nicole Porreco. I have about four extremely quick changes where I get off the stage as one character at the end of one scene and have to be back on to begin the next scene as someone else. I start off the show as the oldest living Bolshevik, and under that I have my Henry the Doctor costume. His pants are rolled up and pinned in a certain way so that they can be pulled down in one stroke."

But in Scene 2, Gardner has to play Hannah Pitt. So after her first exit, she removes the Bolshevik costume, then puts an overcoat, scarf and hat on top of the doctor's clothes and heads back onstage.

"So the other night I come off as Hannah, and Nicole is pulling down my pants and putting on my socks and shoes, while I'm taking off the hat and scarf, removing Hannah's makeup and putting on Henry's," Gardner says. "I stood up to go on stage and realized that Henry's shoes were on the wrong feet, but I didn't have time to change them. So I just went on with them that way. I felt like Harpo the Clown, but I'm sure the audience didn't notice. So now we've put a big red dot inside one shoe to make sure it doesn't happen again."