On the Rise

Chip Walton is one of the brightest young talents to crash the Denver theater scene in years. He's an accomplished actor who made an elegant, riveting Salieri two years ago in the Aurora Fox's Amadeus. But Walton's special gift is for directing. He has a filmmaker's split-second timing, a poet's understanding of the way words work, a painter's eye for composition and a penetrating intelligence capable of plumbing the depths of the most labyrinthine drama.

Then there's his energy, which he needed in droves for his latest project. This doctoral candidate at CU-Boulder has had the temerity to take on one of the most controversial plays of this era: Tony Kushner's epic Angels in America. He's had the guts to stage the technically challenging show at the modest, if charming, Acoma Civic Center. And he's done it on a shoestring.

It hasn't taken Walton long to make his mark in Denver. After arriving from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1993, Walton struck up a friendship with Curt Pesicka, a member of the Hunger Artists Ensemble Theatre. Pesicka helped him get started in the local theater community, introducing him around as he began to audition. Walton met other Hunger Artists members and over time discussed with them the prospect of directing plays.

"At some point," Walton recalls, "they asked me, if I could do anything, what would it be? I said Angels in America." Hunger Artists enthusiastically embraced the idea. "They had done Kushner's adaptation of Corneille's The Illusion, so they had a relationship with his literary agent."

Getting the rights to stage the marathon drama about American life in the time of AIDS was easier than might have been expected. The Denver Center Theatre Company had dibs on the show, but because the Broadway road show of Angels that had flown through Denver in 1995 was highly polished, there was no real reason for the DCTC to repeat the exercise. Hunger Artists went for it--and Kushner, who has final say over who will produce his work, realized there had been no fully mounted local production in Colorado, home of Amendment 2. The fact that Kushner is a very political man probably didn't hurt. He gave his approval.

Hunger Artists came up with the core budget. Then Walton's own production company and Hunger Artists collaborated on the "Help Us Fly an Angel" benefit (the company needed money to pay for a fabulous special effect where one angel actually flies). In keeping with the play's spirit, the auction also benefited two support groups for HIV-positive people, Project Angel Heart and Angels Unaware. Acoma Civic Center executive director Britta Erikson and that venue's ownership group also contributed money and services. Even the play's cast members have pitched in to cover small expenses.

Such fundraising campaigns are rarely seen in the theater community, but Kushner's ambitious saga is an expensive show for a local company to produce. Running for six and a half hours, it's really two plays, which are presented separately.

In the first play, the protagonist, Prior (played by Pesicka), is dying of AIDS. His lover leaves him because he can't cope with watching Prior die, and then an angel descends from on high and asks Prior to carry a message to humankind: God has withdrawn from the universe, and the angelic bureaucrats who've been left behind can't keep up with human complications--nuclear weapons and the like. Everybody should just stop for a while so the angels can catch up. The flying angel is very cool. But, says Walton, angels are really not the point of the play.

"So much of the publicity deals with angels," he says. "But this play is not about angels or even, in any exclusive sense, about the gay life in America. It's about America. Kushner finds a way to use the AIDS epidemic as a lens or a metaphor to explore America at the millennium. And the way in which that works so well is that everything that [characterizes the response to the epidemic] is at the heart of America. On the one hand, you have all the courage, compassion, love, tolerance, acceptance and understanding that the epidemic has brought out in people. On the other hand, the epidemic has brought out all of the greed, bigotry, intolerance and hatred--everything that's bad about America."

Walton points out that in the opening monologue, the character known as the Rabbi describes America as the melting pot where nothing melted. "AIDS confronts America with itself," Walton says. "One character in the play says America is just big ideas, and American dreams die hard. When new ideas come in, there is a lot of resistance. And the renovations of those ideas threaten people in positions of power."

So is this an ideological diatribe? Does Kushner think he has all the answers to America's social problems? "I don't think Kushner would say he had any answers," says Walton. "I know I don't. But Kushner's ideological view and the ideological foundation of the play is unequivocally dialectical. In order for us to really be living our life to the fullest, whether at the personal or the national level, we have to accept that dialectics are part of the way the world works--which makes change inevitable." In other words, Kushner presents conservative and liberal views--and hopes that out of these contrary visions, a new vision will emerge.

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