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'Angels in America' and a prophecy for theater


Over the weekend, I saw both parts of Signature Theatre Company's production of "Angels in America," an epic piece of theater that got its hooks into me during college by way of a literature course and Mike Nichols' HBO miniseries, but which I'd never seen performed. It was stunning in just about every way, and I wrote my forthcoming column about the prospect (shaky as it stands) of a local production of the show.

I think "Angels in America," especially the first half, is an object lesson in how being smart and emotionally attuned to your audience pays off in terms of popularity. It's the old theory, of which I've written before, that the only true way to grow your audience and expand the popularity of the medium in which you work is to treat theatergoers as hyper-intelligent people. (Which they are.) Kushner's play is as intellectual as they come, but the force of its intellect is only apparent because its emotional content is so exceptionally engrossing.

It goes to show that the more genuine and engrossing a play's emotional tenor, the more intellectual content we are willing to swallow and able to digest. This is part of the brilliance of Tony Kushner, who, unlike other astonishingly smart and impossibly erudite playwrights and screenwriters, has managed to broaden his audience's understanding of the world without talking over their heads.

This exquisite balance between intellectual truth and emotional accessibility is what makes a piece like "Angels in America" so compelling, and so difficult to do justice to. The achievement of that balance serves as an instruction not only to other playwrights, but to companies worried about growing audiences in an era of declining funding and (supposedly) declining interest in the medium.

It's a lesson that the best local theaters seem to heed and the mediocre ones seem to eschew, either temporarily or as a matter of policy. Seeing "Angels in America" reinforced for me the idea that, in the long run, it's not only possible to be smart and popular at the same time -- it's utterly necessary.

--Colin Dabkowski


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