I'm fond of saying homophobia is still one the last acceptable taboos out there and I wish this weren't the case.
—Michael Nathanson, WJT artistic producer
The second half of Angels in America is opening at Winnipeg Jewish Theatre roughly one year after the first installment got a chilly welcome from audience members who wouldn't tolerate its homosexual content.
The Pulitzer prize-winning supernatural drama - which follows a gay man, his unfaithful lover, a Mormon lawyer and his valium-addicted wife during the AIDS crisis in 1980s New York - is split into two halves.
WJT artistic producer Michael Nathanson's original plan was to end last season with Millennium Approaches, introducing the play's living and non-living characters, then kick off the theatre's 25th season with Perestroika last September, as an angelic messenger takes a forceful hand in human affairs.
The cast onstage at WJT. (Dylan Hewlett)
It was an ambitious plan for the small theatre. Angels
' eight-person cast is large even for major regional companies. The production values needed to pull off Tony Kushner's "gay fantasia on national themes" are high.
But with critical praise for the play and its HBO adaptation, which featured Meryl Streep and Al Pacino, Nathanson thought he could draw an audience large enough to support the play's high cost. Early reviews (including CBC's Joff Schmidt calling the production "a triumph") seemed to point in the right direction.
But the plan didn't work out.
"The show was not as well attended as we hoped for," Nathanson says. "Unfortunately, there are still elements of the play that people find discomforting. I'm fond of saying homophobia is still one the last acceptable taboos out there and I wish this weren't the case. But some people had some very negative reactions to some content in the play."
WJT artistic director Michael Nathanson (Playwrights Canada)
"This we discovered in some feedback we got during the run of the show, but I also did followup calls with ticket holders to get them to renew for our current season. And some people did not renew and they cited the experience of Millennium Approaches
as being the reason why, which was disappointing."
The play drew just over 1,500 people, or 67 per cent of the theatre's capacity, compared to the 2,000 attendees WJT had budgeted for. Coupled with the loss of subscribers, the financial blow led WJT's board to ask Nathanson to "scramble" the 2012-13 season."
And he did. Perestroika
was delayed seven months. A new play by Alix Sobler was dropped from the bill, replaced by the less expensive one-hander, Dai
. Funding tied to Sobler's play had to be reapplied for, but failed to rematerialize.
Angels in America: Perestroika opens at WJT May 1. (Dylan Hewlett)
Whether the sacrifices pay off at the box office will begin to be shown tonight, at Perestroika
's opening. Nathanson says there is reason to hope last year's "under attendance" isn't repeated.
"We have worked especially hard this year to do as much outreach to the LGBT community as possible, to have them be part of the process, to give them a presence in the lobby during the show with brochures and information."
Nathanson's hopes for change and growth in his audience, both in size and maturity, are echoed by the play he has worked so hard to stage, whose main character states "The world only spins forward."
is an incredibly uplifting play," Nathanson says. "It has a message of hope for the future. When I first read these plays with a mind to producing them, I didn't think about doing both parts, I just thought about doing Perestroika
because its message was so beautiful, so palpable and so powerful. As we try and look forward to our next, hopefully, 25 seasons as a theatre, I couldn't think of a more appropriate play to carry the spirit of what we've been trying to do forward. And I hope people embrace it for that."
Angels in America: Perestroika runs May 1-12 at the Berney Theatre.