Wrestling with "Angels": behind the scenes at Olympia Little Theatre

By Christian Carvajal on February 25, 2015

I spent last week in the skin of a monster. I'm playing Roy Cohn, the very real attorney who guided the knife point of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's Red Scare, then adamantly denied his own homosexuality even as he was dying of AIDS. He's a character in Tony Kushner's landmark, two-part play Angels in America, directed by Nic Olson for Olympia Little Theatre. The show is challenging for both actors and audiences, and it inspires bizarre moments on stage.

OLT's new artistic director Kendra Malm was delivering Thursday-night house announcements when suddenly, a stack of boxes that forms a set wall leaned over and collapsed. The destruction of that wall, and the emergence of an angel through the breach, mark the climax of Part 1, Millennium Approaches. "I don't think that was supposed to happen," Malm announced accurately. No one was standing anywhere near the structure, which remained upright for 21 hours prior to the fall. This sort of thing makes actors believe in theater ghosts.

We performed for a larger house on Friday. As per OLT custom, we greeted departing guests as they passed through the lobby after the three-hour show. An audience member (and frequent OLT actor) came over to shake my hand. "Hey, do you watch that show Breaking Bad?" she asked. I replied it was one of my favorites. "Your Cohn kinda reminds me of that lawyer," she mused, meaning Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). I threw my arms in a V and claimed victory for the night. Last Friday, at least, I won Angels in America. That may be my favorite audience compliment ever.

By Saturday we were inured to the occasional walkout. (This show pushes people's buttons.) We agree it was our finest performance of Millennium Approaches, and the crowd responded warmly. Sunday? Not so much. An audience member shook my hand and asked, "How do you do all that yelling?" Another complimented each of us in turn before arriving at the last actor in line, Anthony Neff. Instead of praising Neff's performance as Joe, he announced, "You need to speak up more," then strode out the door.

Still, you have to hand it to any audience member who sits through, and tracks with, an epic night of theater that makes David Mamet sound like the Disney Channel. Even a brief male-male sex scene, which caused pandemonium in the college theater where I played Louis 22 years ago, rose nary an eyebrow over the weekend. A number of patrons vowed they'd be back for Part 2. I hope they will. It'd be a shame to play one of the worst guys in history for my own amusement. Actually, I'm not sure what that'd say about me at all. If you're curious about the show but missed Part 1, give it a go. You can always ask the house manager for a recap as we patch up the ghost-demolished set.

ANGELS IN AMERICA, PART 2: PERESTROIKA, 7:55 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 1:55 p.m. Sunday, through March 1, Olympia Little Theatre, 1925 Miller Ave. NE, Olympia, $8, 360.786.9484