A few days ago my husband and I went to the Cornish Playhouse in Seattle to see Part 2 of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, which was about American communities directly affected by the newly discovered plague AIDS in the last half of 1980s. Since we saw Part 1 about three weeks ago the details of the play had become a little murky in our memories, but when the performance started it was obvious that Part 2 picked up where Part 1 left off. Structurally, Part 2 was even more fragmented than Part 1, manifesting the fragmented nature of American reality and psyche in the last half of 1980s. Sometimes the fragmentation worked and sometimes it did not. For instance, references to the oldest Bolshevik and Chernobyl nuclear reactor melt-down, which had very little to do with the major narrative, worked because they situated the story historically. In those days contracting AIDS meant an almost immediate death sentence. True, AIDS is still a feared plague, but definitely not as much as it was in the 1980s. Now many HIV positive people and even AIDS patients live fairly long lives thanks to the tremendous advancement of medicine in AIDS related treatment. When AIDS was first discovered in 1980s it was considered as a horrifying disease that inspired fear in people’s minds. In such a social atmosphere Louis’ cowardly abandonment of his lover becomes a little more understandable.
Angels in America is populated with characters with serious flaws. Roy Cohn who represents the dishonest American political climate is obviously such a flawed character. His brazen failings and short-comings as a human being are portrayed as a sort of spectacle. Joe Pitt is a closeted gay Mormon man married to a woman who suffers nervous breakdowns due to the loveless marriage. And Louis Ironson is a Jewish gay political activist who behaves in a despicable manner to his dying lover Prior. Despite his political leaning as a liberal, and his repeated criticism of people like Cohn and Reagan, he himself lacks integrity where it counts. I thought the only sympathetic characters were Prior Walter, an abandoned lover suffering from many symptoms of AIDS, and a black, drag-queen nurse Belize. Both Prior and Belize manifested sense of humor and these characters were more powerful than pathetic by the end of the play.
The performance which effectively realized the Kushner’s play was filled with smart and witty dialogues and observations and it was entertaining with its spectacles and stunt works. However, there was one thing that I disagreed with the production: gratuitous nudity. Probably the nudity exists to shock the audience, to transgress the conventional expectations of society. Yet, I wonder if it’s worth violating the human rights of actors. If the actors enjoy exposing themselves I do not have any quarrel with such a direction. But, if they are forced to do so I think there is a problem. Becoming naked in front of many people means to become objectified under others’ gaze. Did the text require the actors to become naked for the sake of realism? Theater is a symbolic form where one thing can mean another. Then, literal realism is not necessarily called for. Besides, realism does not seem necessary to perform Angels in America, whose subtitle is “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” I may sound excessively prudish – but, honestly, this was what I felt. I even recalled the scandalous incidents at Abu Ghraib. Well, all I can say finally is that I hope the actors did not mind exposing themselves.