Final Curtains

HAVING BEEN BORN in 1970, I have the feeling that my whole life has been played out in the context of speed, the climate of anticipation, the slide into home. And now that we're nearing the big moment--the new millennium--I have to wonder: What was all that about? What did people think we were rushing toward?

The millennium is bleeding very quickly onto the stage, spilling out in a diverse range of genres and narrative guises. Personally, I don't even like the sound of the word millennium, and I seriously dread all those doltish lists everyone will be compiling--100 Most Important Love Songs of the Century, etc. But one of the upsides to the whole phenomenon, at least theater-wise, is that it seems to inspire more questions than answers, and they're great questions: about mortality, morality, America's future, evolution, illness and disaster, the collective unconscious, aliens, ghosts, and--most of all--the uncontrollable flux of existence.

Angels in America, Part One: The Millennium Approaches, currently at the University Theatre, is the most overtly millennial play I've ever seen. But Rent is also well aware of its spot on the historical time line, as is Theatre de la Jeune Lune's current show, Cinemamerica; Birth of the Boom at Mixed Blood; Burning House Group's recent production of Knock Knock; and Seascape at the Jungle. I could go on.

As for Angels, it receives a fine, thoughtful rendering here from director Lou Bellamy and his student cast. First workshopped in 1990, Angels takes place in 1985, in the depths of the Reagan/Bush era, as AIDS is mushrooming. Considering that zeitgeist, this is a remarkably unpolemical work: Author Tony Kushner is far more fascinated with the life of the soul, and with the grand historical picture, than with sloganeering. Like Reagan, Kushner believes in God and in imminent events of biblical dimensions. But Reagan is this play's spiritual nemesis; its America is the negative image of that shining city on a hill. People here live in shadows, literally (and much like the citizens of Jeune Lune's America). And Kushner rarely puts more than two people into a scene. The effect is a sense of isolation (a common theme in all these plays)--a chain of twilight interludes between people on the edge of total seclusion.

In this world, angels and ghosts mingle with mortals; the supernatural is another millennial hallmark. A young man named Prior--from a long, long line of Priors--is dying of AIDS, but is visited in apparent bouts of dementia by the ghosts of two ancestors, one of whom lived during "the pestilence" and can relate to this younger Prior's troubles. Aligning current events with historical or biblical moments is also essential to this breed of play (the death of Lincoln and the eating of the apple in Cinemamerica; the flight from the Garden in Seascape; entire chapters of African American history in Birth of the Boom; the tuberculosis epidemic and the Gospels in Rent, wherein our hero sits down to live and die with the very least of his brethren).

The disembodied female voice of an angel also visits Prior in Angels, promising big happenings to come--and giving him a celestial woody in the process. (In Rent, the most heavenly of creatures--who dies to be reborn, of course--is named "Angel.") Meanwhile, a young Mormon law clerk struggles with his homosexuality, while his wife, Harper, slips into depression, Valium addiction, and a fantasy life in which she can do anything she wants. As you might expect, those characters who venture to the edges of sanity--Harper and Prior--are granted a kind of merit badge for their courage, with requisite Wizard of Oz references in place. They have psychic clarity (see also Cinemamerica, Knock Knock, Birth of the Boom) and get acquainted in dreamtime.

It's difficult to judge whether Angels I uses AIDS as a dramatic hook to bait bigger issues, or whether the whole three-hour play is a heartbreakingly beautiful system of rationalization: an attempt to make sense--historical, cosmic sense--of an incomprehensible disaster. Rent is similarly obscure: As in La Bohème, disease (along with poverty) is used as a mark of the artist, the sensitive soul. By living and dying with AIDS, the characters are given a depth, a sense of urgency and of transcendence. In short, in the world of Rent, AIDS is not merely a horrific accident, but a meaningful passage.

As it sounds, these plays run the risk of strained hopefulness. Each ends, rather poignantly, with the beginning of a new age: a voyage into the unwritten future (Cinemamerica); the commencement of "the Great Work" (Angels); the evolution to a higher plane of consciousness (Knock Knock); a renewed optimism (Boom); or a new meaning of humanity (Seascape--which literally ends with the word "Begin"). The thing I love about these works is that, however feebly at times, they search for logic among chaos, but do so undidactically, with hungry hearts and wide-open minds. Without providing answers per se, they do reach seductively open-ended resolutions--that is, healthy approaches to the Apocalypse or whatever comes next. As Boom quotes Bob Dylan at its close: "Those not busy being born are busy dying."

Angels in America runs through November 9; call 624-2345.

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