Court Theatre artistic director Charles Newell was taken aback when Pulitzer Prize-winning out playwright Tony Kushner prodded him to direct Angels in America.
"I went 'Oh my God!," said Newell, recalling his reaction when first asked to take on Angels. "We then had an extensive conversation about why."
Angels in America, of course, is Kushner's epic and multi-award-winning drama dealing with AIDS that premiered in the early 1990s and has since been staged around the world. Broken into two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, Angels in America teems with magical realism and plenty of political commentary on life, religion and politics under the administration of President Ronald Regan.
Angels in America mixes historical characters alongside fictional ones dreamed up by Kushner for his heady work that he subtitled "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes." It starts in 1985 at the height of the AIDS crisis in New York, and journeys along the way to Salt Lake City, Antarctica and even heaven as eight actors portray multiple characters dealing with love, loss, sickness, death, prescription drugs and more.
"It's an incredibly ambitious and incredibly challenging undertaking for any theater to do both parts of this play," Newell said.
This isn't the first time Newell has directed works by Kushner at Court Theatre. Newell helmed a critically acclaimed and Jeff Award-winning production of the 2004 musical Caroline, or Change by Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori in 2008, and then Newell drew even more admiration the esteemed playwright by directing Kushner's adaptation of Pierre Corneille's The Illusion in 2010.
In light of those productions, Kushner and Newell became closer friends and artistic colleagues. Initially the two were discussing future collaborations with Newell directing Kushner adaptations of works by Brecht and Goethe, before the suggestion for Angels in America arose.
"When Tony Kushner says I want you to direct 'Angels in America,' how can you say no? And yet I needed to make sure I was really doing it for the right reasons for myself and for the theater and for our community," Newell said. "It just had incredibly profound things to say asking how do we take care of ourselves, how do we take care of each other? Those ideas and those questions seemed even more pressing and more necessary today than ever. So I came back to Tony and said I would be honored to do this piece at Court."
Of course, it's easier said than done when it comes to staging an epic like Angels in America. The play it calls for so many different locations and theatrical effects like a flying angel who crashes in to proclaim an ill HIV-positive man to be to a spiritual prophet.
"This is certainly the most ambitious production in terms of the resources of Court Theatre. Just even the architecture of the building is being stretched," Newell said, noting how the 251—seat theater lacks a suitable fly space.
Working with designers like John Clubert (sets), Mike Tutaj (projections), Keith Parham (lighting) and Joshua Horvath (sound), Newell said, "I feel all the design work we did ahead of time required six or seven radical iterations to finally arrive at ideas that are working very well. I'm very glad to say that we have hit upon an idea that I think is going to carry us all to the end of the play's epilogue."
Newell is also pleased to be work with many Chicago acting veterans in the cast like Mary Beth Fisher, Hollis Resnick, Larry Yando, Heidi Kettenring, alongside some up-and-coming actors such as Eddie Bennet, Michael Pogue and Geoff Packard.
"I feel incredibly lucky and fortunate to have so many [actors] that I have a long history with, and some actors in the company who are new to me and to Court Theatre," Newell said, reflecting on his nearly 20 years of working in Chicago. "I think we have the best of the Chicago acting community in the cast."
The Court Theatre revival of Angels in America follows a wildly acclaimed off-Broadway revival that played at the Signature Theatre in New York last year, and will feature Kushner's newly-revised take on Perestroika.
Throughout rehearsals, Newell said he's been in contact with Kushner who is still offering up ideas and suggestions.
"I think he very much wanted this piece to be playing in Chicago during an election season," Newell said. "I'm thrilled that Court has taken on this challenge and I hope that people come to see both parts in what ever way they can. But if they can see both on a single day, I think that is a very special way to see this play."
Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches and Angels in America Part 2: Perestroika run in repertory now through Sunday, June 30, at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. Tickets are $35-$65 (special two-play packages are available). Call 773-753-4472 or visit www.courttheatre.org .