Artscape
5:00 am
Mon August 11, 2014

Actor Marya Sea Kaminski Takes On Epic Play 'Angels In America'

  

Twenty years ago, Seattle’s Intiman Theater was the first regional company in the country to produce “Angels in America.” The 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama is a sweeping tale about the deadly AIDS epidemic from the 1980s.

It’s a cathartic story about politics, sexuality, religion and forgiveness. The protagonist in the story is a young gay man who is fighting AIDS, is abandoned by his boyfriend and becomes a prophet after being visited by an Angel of God.

Considered an American masterpiece, the play has been adapted into an HBO mini-series as well as an opera.But those who have seen a live production will tell you it’s meant to be seen on stage.

“It’s a big beautiful play,” said Andrew Russell, Intiman’s artistic director. “It’s like theater Olympics. It comes around infrequently and it’s celebrated by everyone who loves theater as a giant piece of American work.”

Russell first came across the play in college, reading it while on break from school.

“As a gay man growing up in the Midwest of course I have ties and links to a lot of what’s happening in the piece. But what excites me more is the way Tony (the playwright Tony Kushner) has written a matrix of characters: Christian, Mormon, African American, drag queens, angels, Bolsheviks. It really is a tableau,” Russell said.

And even though a lot has changed in terms of HIV/AIDS and gay rights, Russell says “Angels in America” is still very much relevant to audiences of today.

Russell is now remounting “Angels in America” at the newer Intiman Theater, a much smaller theater company that’s been putting on a summer festival for the past three years. Intiman has always been, according to Russell, an institution that’s wanted to do “big and amazing things.” So here it is: “Angels in America,” which is actually a two-part play, will be performed in repertory. What that means for audiences is a seven-hour theatrical experience that can be viewed over alternating nights — or in one single evening.

“There is something really magical about the experience,” said Seattle actor Marya Sea Kaminski. Her most recent marathon theater-watching event was “The Mysteries” at The Flea Theater in New York City earlier this year. That production is five and a half hours long.

“You’re engaged in a different way. You feel like you’ve truly shared in something incredible. There’s nothing quite like it," she said.

Her recommendation for seeing Intiman’s “Angels”: See Part One, “Millennium Approaches” and Part Two, “Perestroika” in the same night.

But when it comes to this particular production, Kaminski is about to experience a different kind of stamina: actually performing the seven-hour play. She’s one of the cast's eight actors, each of whom plays multiple roles.  Kaminski will play an angel, a nurse, a realtor, a homeless woman and a Mormon pioneer woman.

“I mean, the challenge is delicious,” said Kaminski, who’ll take on a kind of linguistic acrobatics for the role, switching from an Italian-American accent to speaking Hebrew, to embodying the voice of the divine.

In the play written by Tony Kushner, one of the characters actually describes her angel as having the voice of a viola.

“I know, how do you do that?!” Kaminski said. “I’ve been on Spotify, listening to viola solos. But she does have a very wide range and she teeters between being very majestic and heralded, and conversational and funny.”

In order to nail down her characters’ dialects, she worked with vocal coach Judith Shahn, who was her former teacher at the University of Washington as well as the vocal coach for the production at Intiman 20 years ago. She also emailed actor Ellen McLaughlin, who originated the part of the Angel in the workshop productions, then performed the role through its Broadway run.

Russell, who used to work for Kushner, invited the playwright to Seattle for a public lecture earlier this spring. The playwright later met with the Seattle cast. Russell also reached out to several people associated with the first Intiman production, including director Warner Shook and those who figured out how to fly the angel 35 feet in the air.

The flying doesn’t scare Kaminski, who remembers seeing a touring production of “Angels” 20 years ago in Philadelphia as a freshman in college  “and was floored.”

It’s a play she says that she’s always wanted to perform. It’s also a story that connects with her.

“It’s not a history play,” she said. “It’s about people who are disenfranchised, who are desperate for help and who will do anything, and how they find their way.”

When the protagonist, Louis Prior, is abandoned, he faces all sorts of obstacles.

"Possibly the biggest obstacle is being so misunderstood," Kaminski said. "And I don't think it gives it away. He chooses hope. He chooses to live. And it's just beautiful."