There is going to be a National Theatre Live broadcast of both parts of Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes on August 5th and 12th at the IU Cinema. A recent rumor suggested that the current production in London might come to the Walter Kerr Theater in New York City for Broadway’s next season. This makes it a perfect time to reflect on this play and why it is still as much a masterpiece now as it was in 1993.
Angels in America is an epic play set primarily in 1985 New York City. There are many characters, but the linchpin is Prior Walter. Walter has AIDS and starts to receive visions from the “Angel of America,” who informs him that he is a prophet. Walter deals with this life-changing event and his illness as the new millennium approaches.
There are many great things about this play, and they all spring from playwright Tony Kushner’s writing. It is a somewhat personal response to events that Kushner lived through and witnessed. But every character’s voice is his or her own, and feels like nobody else you’ve met. Kushner tackles big themes in a way that is accessible and entertaining while never undercutting their seriousness. His writing is a marvel that creates a solid foundation for other artists to build upon it.
A good example of artists interacting with his work is the 2003 HBO miniseries of Angels in America. The entire cast is fantastic and finds interesting nuances in their characters that weren’t always present on the page. Director Mike Nichols uses a wide range of cinematic techniques that enhance his actors’ work. Even his use of shot-reverse-shot, one of the most conventional techniques in all of visual media, feels distinctive and true to the material.
The best plays are those that allow other artists to bring something to them. These plays preserve the voices of their writers while allowing actors, directors, and other artists enough room to make their own contributions to bring it to life. Angels in America is such a play. It is a polyphonic work of art in which any audience can lose themself. Not every play stands the test of time, but the success of the London production and its National Theatre Live broadcast shows that Angels in America isn’t going anywhere.
Jesse Pasternack is a senior at Indiana University and the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He writes about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse is a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. He has directed three short films.