"I remember this deep, white-hot rage at the realization hundreds of thousands of gay men had been allowed to die because they were considered to be disgusting and not important to society.”
Actor Damien Atkins is describing how he felt the first time he read Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Still in college in his hometown of Edmonton, he discovered the play early in his coming-out process, along with another seminal AIDS drama, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart.
“I was making decisions about how I wanted to live in the world as an artist and as a gay man, and I was being confronted by the realization there are people who essentially want to see me dead,” he says. “At the same time, here’s the character of Prior Walter, a gay man with AIDS who’s chosen as a representative of all of humanity to go to heaven and speak to the angels. That was an incredibly invigorating and inspiring moment. Not only was I not degenerate; in that universe I was incredibly important. Playing this role has always been a dream.”
The word epic is often a default descriptor for works of art potentially challenging to contemporary attention spans. But in this case, it’s a label Homer would applaud. Spanning seven hours, split into two parts, Angels is such a complex, thematically dense play that a simple distillation of its multiple interwoven storylines is near impossible.
Set in New York in the mid 1980s, it centres on two very different gay men dying of AIDS: Atkins’s character Prior (a former designer and drag queen) and Roy Cohn (Diego Matamoros), based on the fiery New York lawyer who assisted Senator Joe McCarthy during the communist witch-hunts of the 1950s. Prior’s boyfriend, Louis (Gregory Prest), is struggling to support him through his illness when he falls for Cohn’s protégé Joe (Mike Ross), a closeted Mormon lawyer working his way up the ranks of the Republican Party. Joe’s wife, Harper (Michelle Monteith), spends much of her days in Valium-induced hallucinations, obsessing about the ozone layer and contemplating a move to Antarctica.
Much is made of the work’s unflinching treatment of AIDS and sexuality (conservative critics have occasionally picketed productions), but Angels is about much more than that. In fact, it’s kind of about everything. Love, death, faith, religion, politics, class, slavery, the Holocaust; it touches on nearly every theme imaginable.
Atkins’s long-time obsession with the work finally shifted to action when he pitched a production to Soulpepper a few years ago. The last Toronto production was Canadian Stage’s 1996/97 version, and Atkins (considering the piece a modern classic) proposed to artistic director Albert Schultz that it was time to bring it back.
“I’m sure he had similar conversations before,” Atkins says. “The only new thing I brought to the table is that I wanted to play Prior. He has lots of people who could have played this part. I don’t know why he chose me. I told him what a turning point reading the play was in my life, and I’m just not someone who can let those things slide away without at least giving it a shot. It’s an incredible gift when your personal and professional lives converge in such a glorious piece of art.”
When he learned he’d landed his dream role last fall, he began preparing immediately. Along with rereading every article, interview and related book he could find, he made trips to New York (where most of the action takes place) and San Francisco (which is also heavily referenced). Already lithe, he embarked on the time-honoured tradition of casting-inspired body modification and set out to lose some weight.
“I didn’t think it was healthy for me to approximate the body shape of someone who’s going through what Prior is experiencing,” he says. “But at the same time I didn’t want people looking at me and feeling like I didn’t look the part. I don’t want to fetishize the role because I have a huge responsibility to people for whom this is not just a piece of fiction, but who are living with it or who died from it or who lost someone, and so I’m up for anything that can make this a more truthful performance.”
Audiences will get plenty of time to check out the results of his diet/exercise regime; as per the script, he has multiple nude scenes (as do some other cast members). If he’s uncomfortable about airing his bits to a house of hundreds, you’d never know it.
“To a certain extent, it’s a play about bodies and about sex,” he says. “There’s immediate shock that happens when someone is naked onstage because it’s a betrayal of the social trust that says we’re not supposed to be naked in front of strangers. With this show, it’s absolutely essential. It puts us all in a room together, which is one of the aims of theatre. When I’m standing there and you’re looking at my naked junk, you can’t ignore the fact that we’re both human beings.”
As a piece of literature, Angels has a curious resonance in contemporary culture, simultaneously addressing a reality that feels far in the past and a political situation that feels eerily current. Obviously, much has changed for those living with HIV in terms of available treatments. DOMA has been repealed and an increasing number of Americans support marriage equality and anti-discrimination laws.
“But what’s surprising is how much in the world of the play is the same,” Atkins says. “In terms of American politics, of course, we have a Democratic president, but the politics of the play are as true as ever, just in a different guise. The dialectic between humanistic collectivism and individualistic capitalism is even sharper now than it ever fucking was. The reality of a world where everyone is only concerned with themselves has come true in horrifying detail.”