BCKSEET Productions is celebrating the 20th anniversary of “Angels in America: A GayFantasia on National Themes” by presenting both parts Tony Kushner’s Tony and Pulitzer winning play about the impact of AIDS on the national culture, through Nov. 28.
Local actor and performer Michael Byrne is starring as an incarnation of Prior and Roy Cohn in the production. The latter role will probably raise eyebrows among people who only know Byrne from his performances and appearances around town as Carlota Ttendant, the saucier, pantyhose-clad half of the cabaret duo Chumley & Carlota.
“For people that don’t know my work other than Carlota, I think it will be a treat for them to see another side,” Byrne said. “Roy is a beast. He’s a monster beast and finding the part of Roy that I personally can identify with, and finding the goodness in Roy, is a challenge, but that’s what’s making it fun. Being offered the role is exciting. It’s the role of a lifetime.”
Even Byrne admits that when he first saw “Angels in America,” he never dreamed he would be playing the role of the closeted, villainous, self-loathing and ultimately doomed lawyer.
“I think it’s one of the most beautiful plays written. I remember being a young actor at that time, really wanting to play Prior and feeling so amazed by that role, never in a million fucking years thinking I would play Roy Cohn,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to have Carlota in my life. She’s a lot more humorous that Roy is. Both of them are really great. It’s just fun to chew on some furniture once in a while in a great dramatic part.”
Byrne added that while Roy is a bastard of the highest caliber, there is a comedic element in how he comes across.
“I think the audience will find humor in some of Roy’s behavior. But when taken as a single instant, it’s horrific. He’s horrific but there’s a humor within his bombast and his audaciousness. What really makes something dramatic is finding the comedy in it.”
Byrne said he is as big a fan of the 2003 HBO mini-series version of “Angels” as he is of the play, but the stage version is the ideal way to experience the story.
“I saw it when it first came out and I saw the movie. I’m excited to do it at the Red Room. I think Tony Kushner would be excited to see it in that kind of space. It’s easy to have magic happen in a movie but the magic of theater is much more immediate and magical in a small space when you have people on either side of you. I did love a lot of performances in the film, but I prefer the magic of theater. Since I was a little boy, I was amazed by it.”
Even though LGBT culture is more visible today and AIDS isn’t the death sentence it was when “Angels” debuted in 1985, Byrne hopes those audiences seeing it for the first time will be as affected by the epic story as he was.
“We still have a long way to go but society is more open to gay people today; not saying that if Roy was alive today, he wouldn’t still be firmly in the closet,” he said. “Back then, when you first came out, the issues and the feeling were very raw. Working on the piece, there’s a flood of memories of all the beautiful, incredibly talented friends that are no longer here. I think anyone who lost anyone to HIV and AIDS will have those same experiences. But I also think the scenes of the piece are universal and remain fresh.”
The HIV epidemic continues to spread even 20 years after Tony Kushner wrote “Angels in America,” reaching an all-time high within Philadelphia’s senior community. Byrne, who works for HIV/AIDS service organization ActionAIDS, said BCKSEET Productions is using the run of shows as an opportunity to collaborate with ActionAIDS to attract a diverse audience as well as raise awareness and funds for local causes.
“A dollar of every ticket is coming to ActionAIDS to support services here,” he said. “We’re also doing three talk-backs on the second, third and fourth Sunday. The third panel will be a panel discussion about HIV and AIDS at the time of ‘Angels in America’ as well as now, and what has changed and what has remained the same.”
“Angels in America” runs through Nov. 28 at The Red Room at Society Hill Playhouse, 507 S. Eighth St. For more information, visit www.bckseet.com or call (215) 923-0210.