Angels in Cincinnati ... Finally

Given the acclaim behind 'Angels in America' and Tony Kushner's continuing reputation as one of our nation's great (if controversial) playwrights, you'd think an ambitious professional theater company in Cincinnati would have staged the work before 2010.

As the 20th century closed, the American Theatre Critics Association surveyed its members regarding their choices for the top plays of the past 100 years. Only one play from the 1990s cracked the Top 10: Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, the massive, two-part work subtitled "A Gay Fantasia on American Themes." In 1993, Part I: Millennium Approaches won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. That script and Part II: Perestroika won back-to-back Tony Awards in 1993 and 1994.

A tour of the entire work — seven hours of compelling theater — made its way to many American cities in 1995, but the then recently opened Aronoff Center for the Arts wasn't one of its stops. Broadway Across America, which also presented shows in Louisville and Columbus, offered the remarkable work to audiences in those cities but not here in conservative Cincinnati, where there were concerns that its language and gay themes wouldn't be well received.

The headline on a cover story I wrote at the time was: “Angels in America — But Not in Cincinnati.” I drove to Louisville to see the entire production in one day, and it remains one of my all-time great theater experiences.

In 2003 the play was made into an HBO film with Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Mary-Louise Parker and Emma Thompson. Presented as a miniseries, it was HBO’s most watched movie that year and won Golden Globe and Emmy awards.

Given the work’s acclaim and Kushner’s continuing reputation as one of our nation’s great (if controversial) playwrights, you’d think an ambitious professional theater company in Cincinnati would have staged the work before 2010. But we’ve only had Angels onstage at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, where Millennium was directed by Richard Hess in the fall of 1998 and Perestroika by Michael Burnham in the spring of 1999, using the same student cast for both productions. Falcon Theatre produced Millennium in a tiny Newport venue in 2005. That’s it. Until now.

Know Theatre of Cincinnati, which envisions creating “explosive and evocative live entertainment,” opens Millennium this weekend. Perestroika will be added to the run on April 23, and through May 8 you’ll be able to see both parts in close proximity — including all-in-one-day double-headers May 1 and 8.

Two of Cincinnati’s best local directors — Brian Isaac Phillips, artistic director at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, and Drew Fracher, whose freelance work has thrilled audiences at Cincinnati Shakespeare (including the current production of Othello) and Ensemble Theatre — are working with a cast that draws upon our strong population of local actors.

Cincinnati Shakespeare company member Rob Jansen (pictured) plays Prior Walter, the central character, a gay man with AIDS who has premonitions of a world-changing event; Know Theatre resident actor Joshua Murphy is his neurotic partner Louis. Christopher Guthrie, another Cincinnati Shakespeare regular, is Joe Pitt, a Mormon attorney conflicted regarding his sexuality; former Know Theatre performer Courtney Brown returns to Cincinnati to play Joe’s unhappy, drug-addicted wife Hannah.

Michael Bath, seen most frequently at Ensemble Theatre, is the vicious conservative attorney Roy Cohn, while another professional who appears all over town, Amy Warner, is Joe’s Mormon mother. Two more of Know’s resident actors, Darnell Benjamin and Liz Vosmeier, round out the accomplished cast.

If you care about great theater, you owe it to yourself to fit this monumental production into your plans for the month ahead. You won’t regret it.

[Find showtimes, buy tickets and get Know Theatre details here.]

CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]

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