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COVER STORY : The Theater Fights Back : 'Angels in America' and 'Falsettos' are just two of an increasing number of works about AIDS. Twelve years into the epidemic, their impact--on the arts and America--marks a portentous moment for the American stage

April 11, 1993|JAN BRESLAUER | Jan Breslauer is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

In Act III of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," chairs are scattered about a bare stage, representing a hilltop graveyard. Actors playing the town's dead are seated, quiet and still, in these seats.

As Emily, a young woman who has died in childbirth, settles into her resting spot, she finds her husband, George, sobbing uncontrollably at her grave.

"They don't understand very much, do they?" she asks her mother-in-law, Mrs. Gibbs, who is buried nearby. "No, dear, not very much," comes the reply. And on that note, the play comes to an end.

Wilder's perennial slice of Americana tracks life, love and mortality in 1901-13 Grover's Corners, N.H., but it could be Anytown, U.S.A. Or any kind of community.

For Grover's Corners, substitute the American theater. In the place of Mrs. Gibbs, Emily and the townspeople, imagine countless actors, directors, writers, producers, designers and others. The difference is that in the "Our Town" of today's theater world, the third act's chairs are too numerous to count.

Death at an early age has become such a matter of course that actors and others routinely scan the obits right along with the audition calls. The dead from the world of the American stage, like the souls of Grover's Corners, sit in their chairs looking out upon the living, and the living still don't know very much.

AIDS is probably the greatest catastrophe ever to hit the American theater. By now, more than a dozen years into the epidemic, we've all read the stories of the famous and not-so-famous who have died. Directors John Hirsch and Wilford Leach, choreographer Michael Bennett, playwrights Scott McPherson and Robert Chesley and actor-director-writer Charles Ludlam are just a few of the stage's fallen stars. Any theater company can recite a litany of deceased colleagues. It is an unfathomable and immeasurable toll.

But there is another side to this bleak story: The AIDS plague has also inspired the most significant artistic ferment in recent memory. There has been heroic creativity in the face of the disease--a burst of energy that, however painfully ironic it may be, has brought a new kind of life out of death to the American stage.

On April 29, "Millennium Approaches"--Part I of Tony Kushner's epic "Angels in America," seen at the Mark Taper Forum in November--opens on Broadway. It is the most anticipated show of the New York season. Also, the William Finn-James Lapine musical "Falsettos" is currently running at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre. Both of these critically acclaimed and popular works feature central characters who have AIDS.

The presence of these two hits isn't just a milestone for AIDS in the theater, nor even for gay theater. It is a portentous moment for the American stage.

"If someone had told us five years ago that the most sought-after work in the American theater today would be an eight-hour epic with Blakean visions of AIDS, we would have thought they were nuts," says performance artist Tim Miller, referring to the Kushner work. "Clearly, something juicy has happened."

AIDS has imbued the American theater with an unparalleled sense of moral urgency, which has translated into a bumper crop of provocative work.

"As challenging as this massive loss is, we've also come up with powerful new voices that have helped tear the lies off the Reagan-Bush era," Miller says.

"AIDS has wreaked havoc--and created new politics and cultures. Crisis generates response and cultural documents, and AIDS has done that, energizing and challenging queer culture's politics and possibilities."

Now, those politics are rippling out to the general consciousness.

" 'Angels' is part of a second or third generation of writing about the epidemic," Kushner says. "There have been plays since the epidemic started, but now there's an appetite in the general public to take a look at it."

While theater may not reach the numbers of people that TV and film do, the stage has cleared the path for the mass media. When film and TV first sought to deal with AIDS, they turned to the theater, adapting successful plays like William Hoffman's "As Is" for the screen. "Film is starting to catch up," says Fountain Theatre Artistic Director Steven Sachs, "but theater is leading the way as far as the arts community is concerned on a national level."

AIDS plays defy any narrow definition. Entries include the groundbreaking 1985 dramas "As Is" and Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart," "Angels in America," and the plays and performance art of Reza Abdoh, Michael Kearns, James Carroll Pickett, Ron Athey, Tim Miller, John Fleck, Karen Finley and countless others, many of them Angelenos.

The epidemic has been addressed by a wide array of artists and venues, from Broadway to nonprofit. Works directly addressing AIDS, featuring characters with AIDS or tangentially influenced by the epidemic's shadow have also proliferated in both the mainstream and alternative arenas.

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