Angels and Demons
Actor's Theatre has long worked the margins of the performing arts scene. But with the world premiere of a commissioned show that ridicules the infamous Angels in America flap, it steps into the spotlight
The question is not whether it is a good play. No, the question is whether our world-class city can handle a play that features a penis. And not just any penis, but a penis alternately involved in oral sex, anal sex, vaginal sex, and various grabs, pulls, thwacks, and waggings. For this is a play, at its heart, about connection, lost connection, the human heart and how and where we find faith in the darkest times of our lives. And it involves two men humping in a park.
—Simon Larisher, Observer theater reporter, in the play Southern Rapture
At Actor's Theatre of Charlotte, the great new work is about to begin.
Eric Coble’s Southern Rapture, a parody of the 1996 controversy surrounding Angels in America, premieres April 15 at Actor’s Theatre.
Now in its twentieth year, the company has built a solid reputation on cutting-edge dramas such as Take Me Out and The Pillowman, stiletto-sharp comedies like Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage and Anton in Show Music, and outré musicals like Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Bat Boy. But unlike Charlotte Repertory Theatre, which flamed out spectacularly in 2005 after pursuing Broadway dreams with Hollywood stars, artistic director Chip Decker and executive director Dan Shoemaker have studiously maintained a low profile. Until now.
Southern Rapture by Eric Coble, previewing on April 10 and opening for a three-week run on April 15, will mark the first time that Actor’s Theatre has presented a world premiere by a playwright of national stature. Just as important, the comedy takes aim at the most notorious episode in Charlotte Rep’s history: the epic 1996 production of Angels in America, parts 1 and 2, that fractured the community and showered the Queen City with world-class ridicule.
For those close to the controversy, which mushroomed during the final week before Angels opened, it wasn’t funny at the time. The Tony-winning play had gay themes and brief frontal male nudity—two issues that aroused the ire of a small group of conservatives who made their feelings known. Faced with threats of expulsion from the Booth Playhouse—and police
arrest if they did perform—the Rep secured an eleventh-hour court injunction that enabled the show to go on. But this was a Pyrrhic victory in the Culture Wars that followed. The county commission cut off funding to the company—and all other arts organizations in the community—during the next budgetary cycle.
The so-called Gang of Five county commissioners who led the charge against the Rep did not enjoy the last laugh. Irate and embarrassed voters swarmed to the polls and scattered four of them when they came up for reelection. (Bill James is still with us.)
Ripples from the Angels splash haven’t completely disappeared, but Decker and Shoemaker believe the mess can be revisited and reconsidered in a constructive way. Decker hatched the idea of a comedic piece about the controversy eleven years ago, as the dust was still settling, while Actor’s Theatre was still a resident company at Spirit Square. "Whenever we talked about it, we thought, how silly this is!” says Shoemaker. “To put so much emphasis on art and what is objectionable and what isn’t."
The project simmered on the back burner until 2004, when Actor’s Theatre was completing its first year at its current venue at 615 East Stonewall Street. That’s when Coble visited Charlotte in conjunction with ATC’s production of his Bright Ideas. Shoemaker sounded Coble out on the project. Coble knew of the Angels flap from afar. But beyond the community outrage and Rep’s success in putting the show onstage, he was a blank.
“I thought it would be a nice challenge—how to tell the story and not let it be lopsided in its biases, and to make it comedic,” Coble says. “To offend without being offensive, to push people’s buttons that need to be pushed without destroying any recent truces and peace treaties that have gone into place.”
But Coble, a leading member of the Playwrights’ Unit at the Cleveland Play House (a five-theater complex in Cleveland, and the oldest regional company in the U.S.), has a constant queue of commissions awaiting his attention—and a family to feed. Bottom line: it would take a real-life theater “angel” to make ATC’s Angels dream come true.
Enter Michael Lakoff.
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Lakoff had lived in Charlotte for a eighteen years (he currently splits time between here and Cincinnati). He was an ATC regular, was impressed with the work, and offered a no-strings donation to the company. Lakoff’s $50,000 gift green-lighted Coble’s Southern Rapture and short-circuited any possible objections that taxpayer money was funding filth and libel. Yet Actor’s Theatre and Coble, even after getting free rein to craft their comedy as they pleased, have proceeded discreetly and conscientiously.
Coble has carefully drawn a dotted line between truth and his farcical fiction. All the real names of the play, the playwright, the theater company, the actors, and the theater critic have been changed. The religious right has been compressed into a Reverend and a single follower. Likewise, all political opposition has been consolidated into Mayor Winston Paxton.
Gender has also been reshuffled a bit. Marjorie Winthrop is now the artistic director of World’s Stage Theatre, piloting the premiere of Anton Finewitz’s Rapture in America. Candice Overmyer is the town DA, and Allissa Marquand is a power player on the World’s Stage board, moonlighting as the soul of the city.
Charlotte is never named. Yet some telltale signposts remain, beginning with one ugly Douglas Airport statue touching the finger of God in the play’s logo, evoking both the holiness of the Sistine Chapel and the nakedness of Adam. Although the man on the theater beat is now Simon Larisher, he still writes for the Observer, and somewhere in the vicinity of Rapture rehearsals, there’s a place called Myers Park.
“For us,” says Decker, “it’s basically telling the story and telling it in a very funny way, where people can actually get together and revisit it and talk about it—and examine ourselves. Have we really moved on from that point? Yes? No? You decide.
Hopefully, the answer is a resounding yes.”
As in Angels in America, members of Coble’s troupe will have the chance to shine in multiple roles. The actor portraying Larisher, for example, will also get to sink his chops into World’s Stage attorney Franklin McManus, problematic actor Emmett Whipple, and the host of Good Morning America.
Winthrop and Mayor Paxton are at the center of the action, antagonists in the Good Morning America catastrophe. They’re the two people, initially respectful of one another, who get swept up in the controversy, becoming unwilling warriors in a silly, destructive battle for a city’s soul, both shouting out horrible epithets they deeply regret.
Surrounding the mayor and the artistic director are two packs of loonies. Decker and Shoemaker need not have worried about Coble dishing it out evenly to both sides of the Angels controversy. Prepare to be pleasantly surprised if you feared a one-sided redneck roast. If anything, balance is upended by the amount of ridicule Coble heaps on the artists and the media.
Larisher, smugly amoral, is even more bent on stirring the pot than the TV host, callous to all the consequences. World’s Stage producing director Donald Sherman is a flat-out publicity whore, panting and scheming for all the ink and airtime he can get for the company. Predictably, the actors are a bundle of vanity and eccentricity. World’s Stage defense attorney McManus spouts a steady stream of indecipherable cracker-barrel homilies.
Coble says he intentionally tipped the scales, saying that he found some familiar stereotypes in the real-life people who agitated against Angels. Audiences have seen more than a fair share of irate Southern preachers and politicians.
After securing the ATC commission, Coble came to Charlotte in November 2007 and conducted interviews for three or four days. He had clearly thought out his strategy for maintaining his firewall between fact and fiction. To avoid quoting anyone verbatim, Coble brought a notebook to interviews instead of a tape recorder, and he avoided talking to some of the people at the heart of the dustup to keep from inadvertently allowing their true personalities to intrude on his imaginings.
He decided to begin with the front-page story in the Observer and take us through the opening of Rapture in America. “There was a really lovely, almost Aristotelian kind of unity—the newspaper article, I think, came out on a Monday, and the show was opening that Friday,” Coble says. “And it all played out in this one-week period, this huge schism, and then the reverberations happened for years after. I liked that it was about getting this show up on its feet. Would this show happen or not? That ultimately seemed the crux.”
Shoemaker says Southern Rapture will not be the last world premiere to be presented on East Stonewall Street. The company has applied for membership in the prestigious National New Play Network, which is a consortium of theaters that focus on new work and commissioning new work.
“I think they are moving onto a more national stage,” Coble says. “I have found nationwide that, when I say, ‘I’m working on this new commission with Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte,’ there are increasing numbers of theaters who have heard of them.” At age forty, Coble is a playwright who people have their eyes on: in 2006 he was spotlighted in American Theatre Magazine among “Seven Playwrights to Watch.” So a play about Charlotte, developed and premiered in Charlotte, by a trendy playwright could become a major ATC coup.
Decker sees potential beyond the Stonewall Street stage. “We’re definitely venturing into new territory as far as the creation of a new play,” he says, “and I really hope [Southern Rapture] resonates far beyond the borders of Charlotte. Yeah, we know it happened here, and this is where it’s based. It has a Southern twang to it, for sure, but you look at any city that has similar issues, and I think it would play anywhere across the country.”