By Minda Honey
Photos by Clay Cook
Hair by Ana Perez
Makeup by Rick Bancroft
A rare opportunity awaits as “Angels in America” lands at Actors Theatre. Set in the midst of the AIDS crisis, this provocative production has moved and inspired audiences for nearly two decades. Both parts of the play will premiere at Actors this fall with a stellar cast and production team prepared to tackle its many difficult components. We had the good fortune of meeting the ensemble cast to learn about their roles, their backgrounds and their impressions of the Derby City.
(Emily/Ella Chapter/The Woman in the South Bronx/The Angel)
Rami Margron is originally from the Bay Area, but like much of the cast, currently resides in New York City. The actress is playing five different characters in “Angels in America,” but surprisingly this is not the greatest number of roles she’s juggled at once. “Multiple characters is one of my specialties,” says Margron, “and physical comedy. So, I would say more than half of the shows I do are multiple characters.” Margron says she’s also a regular at roles that require “some sort of weird physical feat,” so she’s well-prepared for the challenge of flying – and crashing – as The Angel. She describes the play as “iconic” and “perfect theater.” As far as her impression of Louisville goes, “It’s the biggest city around, so it’s where things happen. But it’s also a small town, so it’s warm and personal. I love saying ‘Hi!’ to everyone on the street. It’s very different from New York and I appreciate that.”
(Rabbi Chemelwitz/Henry/Hannah Pitt/Ethel Rosenberg)
Barbara Walsh last performed at Actors Theatre in 1988 in “Tom Foolery.” From her last stint in Louisville she remembers enjoying drinks at the Seelbach Hotel and that she performed on the main stage because the other two stages didn’t exist yet. Unlike Margron, Walsh has never played this many roles in one play, “Much less three men and two women.” Walsh believes Tony Kushner has written “a masterpiece on the human condition.” She describes the characters that populate Kushner’s “Angels in America” as all being lost. Walsh’s favorite of her roles is Hannah Pitt, a Mormon mother navigating her relationship with her gay son. “What happens on her journey is she becomes illuminated,” Walsh explains. “Hannah talks about how Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, had a great need of understanding. And that line sticks out for me. We all want to understand. And if we can understand each other, it’s a huge step in the right direction.” Walsh highly recommends seeing the play on one of the two days both parts will be performed back-to-back, “I can’t imagine them apart now that I know both because part one ends in a cliff-hanger. I kind of wish we were doing both of them for all of the performances!”
(Actors Theatre’s Associate Artistic Director)
“I’ve had a 25-year relationship with ‘Angels in America,’” says Meredith McDonough. “I saw it like six times when I was 16 years old and living in New York.” Reflecting on that time, McDonough explains, “It’s amazing to me that I was 16 years old when there was a plague that many of my friends died in, and that part of gay history, I think, sometimes gets a little lost. It feels distant, but it was in my lifetime. This play is as much a celebration as it is a memorial.” McDonough, who re-reads the play at least twice a year, says, “It’s an amazing thing to get to work on it because it feels like the text is a friend in the room. And many of these actors I’ve worked with and known for quite some time, so it’s like the very best of people from different parts of my life working on this thing that we all know so well.” McDonough has been pushing to do “Angels in America” for years, but says after the November election, Les Waters, Actors Theatre Artistic Director, agreed the time was right, “This is it and we should do both. One is a show, it’s a good play. Two? Two is an event. It makes a statement that says it’s really worth the whole story.” McDonough believes the second part delivers the true message of the play: “We won’t stop moving and we won’t stop intermingling. The world only spins forward and change is positive. I feel like that message is so important to hear and remind ourselves of, especially in Kentucky.” She’s excited to be doing this production at Actors, sharing, “Our audience is one of the most adventurous audiences I’ve ever worked with. Because they’ve had the Humana Festival for 40 plus years, they’re accustomed to work that comes in tons of different forms. So, I feel like this show is a real gift for our audience.” McDonough is confident the Actors Theatre audience will appreciate the writing, comedy and the play’s bold and ambitious commitment.
(Harper Pitt/Martin Heller)
Therese Barbato is from Chicago, but moved to New York to attend graduate school at Julliard, and she has lived in the city ever since. On playing Harper, Barbato says, “She’s the love of my life. If my soul could speak it would sound like Harper.” She relates to Harper’s desperate search for the truth. But the role isn’t an easy one. “It feels like the largest challenge as an actor, but also the most fulfilling one,” Barbato shares. “Sometimes plays are like fast food. You eat it, and you’re like ‘Mmm,’ but then you’re like ‘ugh,’ because you realize it doesn’t give anything back to you. Playing Harper is like eating the most nutritious macro bowl, and you want to be eating it because it’s nourishing you.” As far as finding nourishing meals in Louisville goes, Barbato is all about the bagel egg sandwich at Please & Thank You and also enjoys dining at Game and the Mayan Café.
When he’s not in rehearsals at Actors Theatre, Brian Slaten has been exploring on his mountain bike all over Seneca and Cherokee Parks. Before performing in “Angels in America” when he was an undergraduate, Slaten had primarily been exposed to high school musicals, so he says that he didn’t know “a play could be so truthful to the human experience and so generous of soul.” Slaten explains that he “went to the University of Wyoming when Matthew Shepard was killed. So, the Laramie Project happened and Moisés Kaufman was there at the time.” While in graduate school at the Univeristy of California, San Diego, he was directed by Actors Theatre’s Associate Artistic Director, Meredith McDonough, in the same role he is currently playing. Slaten says he has grown both as an actor and a person since his first time in the role of Joe Pitt, “I’ve made life mistakes now. I am a married person now and learning how to live in a relationship was not something I had experience with when I was 24. Those are things that I think are necessary for this role because something Joe is dealing with is the marriage that he’s in.” Slaten says while he was working as a carpenter in Los Angeles, building sets for the Center Theatre Group, he was told the theater was in possession of the Bethesda Angel from the original production. That Angel, which came with its own instructions for how to open it, has made its way to Louisville to be used in the Actors Theatre production.
(Roy Cohn/Prior 2)
Lou Liberatore called St. James Court and Louisville’s famed historic Victorian neighborhood a delight, “I have a Victorian in South Jersey – They’re so wonderful!” Not so wonderful? His character Roy Cohn. Liberatore shared some history about the real Cohn, explaining, “In the play, he says one of his proudest moments was that he got Ethel Rosenberg the electric chair… which drew the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, who then introduced him to Joe McCarthy and the McCarthy Hearings where he got his notoriety. You can’t avoid the comparisons to Trump because he was one of Donald Trump’s mentors. He took him and brought him into New York society. And you can see how Trump today holds himself and attacks — all of his tactics are from the Roy Cohn playbook.” Liberatore continued, “I like to say Roy Cohn is alive and well and living in the White House.” Liberatore worked directly with “Angels in America” playwright, Tony Kushner, on a different Kushner project, and says the bit of advice he always carries with him is that “‘These characters in the play are very smart, very literate. They’re never searching for a word, they’re searching for a better word.’ That little note was such a burst of clarity about who Tony is and who these characters are.”
“I get to work with Meredith McDonough and do one of the best plays of the 20th century? Sure! Yes, please,” says Richard Gallagher about the opportunity to come to Actors Theatre and perform in a production of “Angels in America.” Unlike McDonough, Gallagher has never seen “Angels in America” performed. He has only seen the HBO special, which according to much of the cast, doesn’t have the same sense of theater magic about it and lacks much of the humor of the original script. “These plays have so much humor in them, but that didn’t translate so well in the film for some reason,” he says. “Like there’s one scene that’s almost full on farce, running around doorways and hallways. It’s just funny!” Gallagher also found his first visit to the Highland’s little neighborhood spot Big Bar humorous. He recalls, “We’re walking back like, ‘Let’s go take a look at what the back room is!’ And that’s not a back room, that’s a store room and then the bathroom.” On a more serious note, Gallagher laments, “It’s sad that the play is still as relevant as it is. I mean it deals so much with [HIV/AIDS] but it also deals with the politics of the disenfranchisement and what it means to be American.” Gallagher explains that his character, Louis Ironson, is a stand in for the playwright and says, “Louis has this belief in the power of politics and this idea of historical progress, that it’s getting better. That it’s always getting better… and Tony is absolutely on record for having believed that and feeling that way, so he puts those words in Louis’ mouth. It’d be interesting to see all these years later, if that still holds true for him because it’s hard to see that.”
(Prior Walter/Man in the Park)
Mark Junek credits “Angels in America” for getting him into Julliard. He performed a monologue as Prior Walter for his audition. One of the questions he didn’t ask then, but wonders now, is “Who is Prior outside of [AIDS]?” Having gone from his 20s to his 30s, Junek now has a decade of relationship experience to draw on and describes “Angels in America” as a breakup play that shows the struggle of “accepting loss with grace.” Junek believes audiences will identify with the adversity Prior faces. He explains, “Having to push against cultural expectations, that the fight for equality is still going on.” On the play’s intersection of gay history and religion, Junek says AIDS was seen as “an act of God, an act of retribution,” but with time, distance and understanding, it was revealed as none of those things. Junek says that working with Actors Theatre’s Associate Artistic Director Meredith McDonough is “a pleasure” and that he has a deep appreciation for his castmates, “We’re all in tears all the time and in absolute awe of this play, that we’re in the presence of this work. It’s a long play, but it doesn’t feel that long. This play is sacred. It’s a remarkably personal thing for each and every one of us, and I’m so excited to share it.”
This is Richard Prioleau’s third stint in Louisville and at Actors Theatre, and he says, “This town feels more like home every time I am here.” It’s the people, he explains, “who give this great theater a lot of amazing support” that keep him coming back to Actors. Prioleau reflects that when he auditioned for “Angels in America” at Belize college, he didn’t get the role he is currently playing, but upon being cast in this production, he says, “I was like, ‘Ohmigawd, I’m going to play this role of this incredibly confident, caring ex-drag queen that when I was 18 years old was terrifying to play.’ So, it’s great to come to it now, having a better sense of self.” At age 22, he first crossed paths with Actors Theatre’s Associate Artistic Director Meredith McDonough, who was at Northwestern teaching “Angels in America” to high school students. “I was her assistant,” Prioleau shares, “so it’s like full circle.” When asked how his character finds the sympathy to care for the villainous Roy Cohn, particularly when there is no reward for this good deed, Prioleau says, “Well, what Tony Kushner does so brilliantly, is he gives me a line that says ‘Well, maybe it’s just peace that you find within that forgiveness.’ And that sense of peace in that time of turmoil when all of your friends are dying is few and far between. And if you’re able to find peace, maybe there’s something to be hopeful about in all of that.” Prioleau elaborates on the importance of his character Belize, saying, “If I can tell one portion or aspect of what it means to be a gay Black man in America during any time period in American history, that is the goal that I’ve had as an artist for a really long time. If that’s something some person can see and identify with here in Louisville, that’s fantastic and maybe I’ve done something that is positive.”