“Because the soul is progressive, it never quite repeats itself, but in every act attempts the production of a new and fairer whole.”
Tony Kushner uses this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson as the epigraph for Perestroika. The title of the second half of Kushner’s “Gay Fantasia on National Themes” refers to Mikhail Gorbachev’s “restructuring” (the meaning of “perestroika”) of the now-defunct Soviet Union. We get glimpses of the Soviet Union in its dotage in Perestroika, but the relationships of all the characters undergo restructuring as well. As Tony Kushner writes about the two halves: “Millennium Approaches is a play about security and certainty being blown apart, while Perestroika is about danger and possibility following the explosion. The events in Perestroika proceed from the wreckage made by the Angel’s traumatic entry at the end of Millennium. A membrane has broken.”
The idea of “membrane” is important. Skin, and the body (both individual and politic), echo through Millennium Approaches as emblems of identity, along with the related themes of movement and stasis. Here they come to the fore. How do people and societies change? Especially in the midst of the “mad swirling planetary disorganization” that has seemed to characterize our world for the past quarter-century?
Prior Walter, a gay man living in New York City, has been diagnosed with AIDS. Unable to deal with the challenge, his lover, Louis Ironson has left left him, and is beginning a tentative relationship with the closeted Mormon Republican lawyer Joe Pitt.
Joe's wife Harper, who suffers from a mild valium addiction, has encountered Prior in a hallucinatory scene she refers to as “threshold of revelation.” Traumatized by the discovery of Joe’s lies, Harper has fled their apartment after a fight, and is in a dream Antarctica with the imaginary travel agent Mr. Lies. Joe's mother, Hannah, has sold her house in Salt Lake City and comes to New York after Joe tells her he's gay.
Meanwhile, Joe's mentor, the rightwing fixer and shady lawyer Roy Cohn, has also been diagnosed with AIDS and is facing disbarment. After a series of severe abdominal spasms, he has been visited by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, whom he helped execute in the 1950s. Ethel has called an ambulance for him.
Meanwhile, Prior has been seeking help from his friend Belize, a male nurse, because of Louis and because he's having visions and hearing strange voices that make him fear he's losing his mind. Millennium Approaches ends with an Angel bursting through the ceiling of Prior's apartment and announcing:
The Great Work Begins:
The Messenger has arrived."
In the final installment of his interview, Matt Saunders describes the impact of the Yale School of Drama on his development as a designer, why he returned to Philadelphia, looking forward to Perestroika, and the impact Angels in America had on him as a high school student.
Walter Bilderback: Many of our audiences have seen your previous work at the Wilma as well as at other Philadelphia theaters, especially New Paradise Laboratories and Theater Exile, may also have seen you act in the past, too – a couple of years ago you left Philadelphia to earn an MFA from the Yale School of Drama, but you moved back here. What additional tools did Yale give you as a designer, and then second,
In this second installment, Matt Saunders describes the challenges of designing Angels in America and what he learned from the technical rehearsals and preview period about the set.
Walter Bilderback: what are the particular problems that Angels in America presents for a scenic designer?
Matt Saunders: I think one of the biggest challenges is the multitude of locations that the play calls for and that are inherent in the script. I mean, the scenes are relatively short, and they move, there are like nineteen or twenty different locations in Part One. I think the sort of conventional, illusionistic designer impulse is to think, “Whoa. I need a turntable, I need to be able to have all these walls, and how am I going to show all of these different places?” That impulse is in me, just because I’m a designer, but I really believe in the direction that we went – the stripped-down rehearsal room aesthetic. And the other challenges with this play are of course the magic moments, and the special effects. This play has a supernatural quality to it, and the trick is trying to figure out how to balance the pedestrian world with the sort of magical realism that Kushner writes in. What we’ve landed on - I hope - does that in a sophisticated way, because we’ve done is, we’ve kept everything in the pedestrian world, very earth-bound. Nothing flies in and out, all of the scenic pieces, they roll on, and they’re very connected to the earth, and to this world. Magic, and stage magic, I feel like, there’s a relativity involved with that. So you know, you don’t want to play your hand too early – it’s six hours worth of play here, and I hope we’ve been very selective and judicious and sort of careful with when we introduce the magic.
WB: That sense of making sure the magic is connected to the earth feels kind of important to Kushner’s metaphysics as well.
Matt Saunders first became known to Philadelphia audiences as an actor and designer for New Paradise Laboratories, which he co-founded. He’s worked on numerous stages around town as both performer and designer, including set designs at the Wilma for Age of Arousal, My Children, My Africa!, Rock’n’Roll, and now Angels in America. In this first installment, he speaks with Wilma Theater Dramaturg Walter Bilderback about the design process and how his design concept came about.
Walter Bilderback: For Angels in America, you and Blanka Zizka met frequently, and you’ve come up with a strikingly bold scenic design. Can you tell us a little about the process, and how the set design evolved?
Matt Saunders: We started by just reading the play aloud as a group – your Roy Cohn was really good, actually – we traded roles, and we basically had no idea where we were gonna go with it, design-wise. And as usual working with Blanka the focus – whether it’s design, acting,… – the work was just about the play for a long long long long long time. I think there were certain things that we sort of agreed on early, especially in terms of how the play moves, and the givens, the fact that there are split scenes and there are scenes that overlap and all these different locations, and we knew that we wanted to create a scenic environment that allowed for the play to move the way it’s designed to move. And there’s that epic nature that we knew we had to sort of embody, and acknowledge. But for me, the epic nature of it – it isn’t so much about the set needs to be epic. I feel like the epic nature of the play is found within the idea – the scope of the idea is in the overlapping narratives and stuff.
WB: What do you mean when you talk about the meetings being “all about the play”?