‘The great work begins,” declares the angel crashing into the drama of “Millennium Approaches,” the first installment of Tony Kushner’s two-part, seven-hour opus, “Angels in America.”
For Round House Theatre and Olney Theatre Center, the work began 18 months ago on a joint production that would bring a rare epic scale to Kushner’s acclaimed marathon. Rehearsals began July 12 at Round House, where the show is being presented in partnership with the troupe’s Montgomery County colleagues at Olney. “Millennium Approaches” started performances Sept. 7.
Now comes the hard part: “Perestroika,” the involved, fantastical, theoretical conclusion that’s so daunting, some companies don’t even try it, even though that leaves the story literally hanging in midair.
“It’s more complex,” Round House Artistic Director Ryan Rilette says of “Perestroika,” his half of the venture, which began previews Sept. 27. (Olney head Jason Loewith directed “Millennium”; the shows will run in rotating rep through October.) “Momentum builds in ‘Millennium’ and splinters in ‘Perestroika’; it’s about putting the pieces back together again. Because the magic in this is so big and so spectacle-filled, that helps push it along.”
Kushner’s agonizingly personal play about political opportunism and the AIDS epidemic had a famously complicated birth, with early productions both small (at San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre) and large (on Broadway). For all its acclaim — Rilette reasonably calls it one of the five greatest plays of the 20th century — “Angels” hasn’t been seen on a large scale since the 1995 tour at the Kennedy Center.
Still, it was the first title Rilette and Loewith thought about when they brainstormed what their theaters might do together, especially when they considered what might take the strength of two troupes to do. The companies have pooled resources to buy extra time, top Washington-area talent and even technical equipment to make their “Angels” big.
“To do both plays for any one company is draining and exhausting,” Loewith says, sitting in the Round House balcony with Rilette during a break in “Perestroika” technical rehearsals. “To devote two season slots to this is an enormous risk. What if the first play doesn’t do as well as we hoped? That will affect the second play. But if we lose money, we’re not going to lose as much, because we’ll share that loss.”
Combining audiences is one aim of the partnership; apparently theatergoers don’t often commute between the two outfits. (That narrow selection seems to be a citywide issue.) Rilette says that Round House, which is practically on top of Metro’s Bethesda stop, experiences more audience crossover with downtown troupes than it does with Olney.
The artistic directors conspired to be timely: “We thought very much about the fact that this was going to be right before the election,” Rilette says. “I don’t think that either one of us would have guessed that Donald Trump was going to be the nominee at that point, but in a weird way the play has become more urgent because of that. There are parts of this play that feel even more relevant than when they were written.”
Kushner’s story demands enormousness, and when Loewith’s “Millennium” leaps to a snowy Antarctica, the emptiness feels frigid and vast.
Rilette says of his stage: “This is a big space. If you do an epic play in a big space, and you do it in a minimal way, it doesn’t feel like it fits right.”
Set designer James Kronzer provided projections designer Clint Allen with a massive, fairly neutral structure as a canvas for the show’s encompassing video imagery. A grand staircase leads to a wall of industrial windows, which Allen sees as a vague train station — apt for a tale about struggling to move forward.
He also sees the design as a “membrane” between Heaven and Earth, with projections as key to creating the cosmic enchantment. When, for instance, Jon Hudson Odom enters as the character Mr. Lies (a figment of another character’s imagination), audiences see a video image of him on the set’s second level. With a split-second whoosh of Joshua Horvath’s sound design and a blur of York Kennedy’s lights, Odom suddenly appears at ground level, as if whisked by a supernatural elevator.
The angel is an increasingly visible and noisy presence even before the winged figure, played by Dawn Ursula, finally appears. Projections shimmer and sound rumbles when heaven quakes; Allen shows how areas of pink light wobble like Jello at the edge of a scene.
“It’s activated,” Allen says. “It’s alive.”
Flat recorded imagery can be distracting behind live actors, Allen thinks. “This makes it more believable,” he says of projections swamping the stage. “The actor is enveloped in it.”
Amplifying the effect, Round House has a trap door, a lift under the stage and some new motorized machinery that Olney doesn’t have, which is largely why the show is in Bethesda. For $4,000, the team rented a $50,000 projector, the same sort employed by the dazzling design of “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” (which uses four of the devices).
The cost to replace a lightbulb: $1,500.
Oh, and there’s also the traditional yet complicated stage flying for the angel, which required specialized gear and training, and takes four people to operate — not including Ursula.
Rilette and Loewith not only had to agree on casting and design; they also had to figure how — and if — they would share a “vocabulary.”
Rilette’s example: For “Perestroika,” did he really want to use the same sorts of projections and sound Loewith was coming up with to punctuate acts in “Millennium”? Would different choices wreck the tone of the saga?
In the end, he didn’t, but not because he couldn’t. He simply liked Allen’s idea.
“Jason and I come at things differently in some cases, but we’re always trying to get the same solution,” Rilette says. He adds that the most difficult part has been the “math” — working around a trapdoor that’s often open (it doesn’t have a “sun roof,” meaning a slide that closes when the floor has been lowered), and keeping track of which characters are associated with certain areas of the wide two-level set.
The commitment to “Angels” has tied up the cast’s in-demand actors longer than usual, but they see at least three payoffs: juicy roles, extra time to master the daunting script, and the buzz of being in the most politically relevant play around town.
“There are really great arguments to be had no matter who you are in this play,” says Mitchell Hébert, the show’s bête noire as the hyperaggressive, closeted gay lawyer Roy Cohn, a historical figure whose connections to Donald Trump have been noted lately. “The immersion, the amount of time we’re allowed to spend in this, is pretty great.”
“I don’t know how I could have understood this play — the seven hours of it — without having that amount of time to work on it,” says Tom Story, who plays AIDS patient and “Angels” centerpiece Prior Walter. “It’s emotionally demanding, vocally demanding, intellectually demanding and technically demanding. It doesn’t feel normal. And it feels like a prophecy sometimes. We’re talking about America right now.”
Hébert says: “In ‘Perestroika’ I say, ‘The lawyers are the high priests of America. We alone know the words that invented America out of thin air, and we alone know how to use those words.’ And we heard Trump’s speech at the convention: ‘I alone . . .’ ”
Story mentions a famous line from the gay black nurse Belize about the word “free” in the national anthem being pitched so high no one can reach it. “Talking about the national anthem as an African American man?” Story says. “Just turn on the news.”
Ursula adds another pungent line: “I don’t have to love America. I have to live in it.”
“There is still so much work to be done for all people who are not straight white men,” Story says. “No offense to those in the room.”
Hébert, grinning wickedly and putting on his strident Roy Cohn squawk, barks: “None taken!”
Angels in America, by Tony Kushner. Directed by Jason Loewith (“Part I: Millennium Approaches”) and Ryan Rilette (“Part II: Perestroika”). Through Oct. 30. 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. Tickets $30-$61, subject to change. Call 240-644-1100 or visit roundhousetheatre.org.