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Take Five: Stray Dog's Gary Bell on why 'Angels in America' still flies in 2012

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 9, 2012 - Two decades ago, Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” put a human face on the AIDS epidemic. But as it explored 1980s America coming to terms with the AIDS crisis, it also examined the intersection of love, religion, sex, death and politics that often behave much like the ever-changing parts of the era’s popular Rubik’s Cube.

Although Rubik’s Cube has been solved countless times since, issues around power, relationships and life transitions remain a puzzle today. The two-part play, presented by Stray Dog Theatre beginning April 12, is timeless, according to artistic director Gary Bell, who produced just Part One “Millennium Approaches” in Stray Dog’s inaugural 2003 season.

The script for each part calls for eight actors to perform multiple roles in a demanding production featuring a flying angel as well as ghosts in a series of fast-paced scenes. With each segment taking three hours and including two intermissions, Stray Dog is moving its usual 8 p.m. start time up to 7:30 p.m.

Bell talked with the Beacon about taking on such an ambitious project.

Beacon: How are you handling the challenges in these productions?

Gary Bell: I’m actually surprised at how easily it’s going, to be honest.

You don’t get to see both parts done very often. The length and breadth of the pieces scare off a lot of theaters. I’m fortunate to have my own space. And I feel the need to do things in life that frighten me a little; if you do things that move you forward, artistically, then you don’t stay stagnant.

We’ve been working on this for about a year; we cast six of the actors a year ago. We had many workshops throughout the year to discuss the themes and nature of the plays so we came into rehearsal ready to go.

The scenes are very short and they pick up later in the play, and actors have to be able to carry the motivation from one scene that is happening now to the end of that scene, which may happen 30 minutes later. They have to keep track of all the motivations and feelings and who the character is, while also jumping out to play some other character.

Keeping aware of the arc of the story and the arc of the characters is really a difficult thing to do. Therefore it was important for us to have sessions and workshops prior to even doing the show.

What did you already know as a result of presenting Part One nine years ago?

Bell: That the simpler you keep things, the better it is for this show, like one or two archetypal pieces of furniture can designate a scene. The majority of the show comes to life through the acting.

My team has been very successful in producing complex show like “Tommy” and “Urinetown” so I know I can rely on them for “Angels.”

So, can you reveal the tricks behind the way the angel appears?

Bell: It’s a little bit of a secret; I don’t think I want to share that. I guess it’s a little bit of theater magic.

Would you elaborate on the themes of the play?

Bell: When I first saw it, I thought it was a great play about the AIDS experience but as I was watching it, I realized it was much more than that; it’s a very universally themed play that deals with complex emotional and intellectual themes.

There are numerous relationship themes -- gay and straight -- political themes and religious themes, about the Jewish religion as well as the Mormon religion.

It basically shows that we’re all the same and we’ve all had experiences in the past tying us to events, not just AIDS but the Holocaust, the bubonic plagues, all the way back to the beginning of time. This play is a testimony and a warning about how precious life is, and the delicate nature of life and how we should be appreciating every day we live.

Two three-hour nights is a big commitment for audiences. Do you see that as a problem?

Bell: The first time we did the show, people would look at their watches afterward and would be surprised at how fast everything moved; the scenes are short and they shift very quickly.

I think each part can stand on its own. But if you see Part One, you’ll definitely want to find out what’s going to happen in Part Two. And if you see Part Two, you’re definitely going to want to know what happened before.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.