Hydriotaphia & Other Plays
Theater Communications Group ($16.95)
by Justin Maxwell
Tony Kushner is a playwright who knows how to capitalize on his strengths: character, voice and theme. He knows how to make good theater with plays that are intelligent and entertaining. The pair of plays that constitute Angels in America (Millennium Approaches, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, and Perestroika, probably his most popular work) are strong, ingenious, and delightful in their theatricality. The plays in Death & Taxes: Hydriotaphia & Other Plays are and are not the plays of Angels In America. This is a collection of diverse plays loosely gathered under the two ideas of the title, but for which, according to Kushner, "there is no overarching thematic justification."
Kushner's characters are, for all their theatricality, vibrantly human. They surprise in both their originality and how well they seem to belong to the play once they're on stage. "Hydriotaphia," the book's centerpiece, is a wonderful farce, the language of which defines and reveals the nature of its characters. It is an excellent example of how Kushner can build, explore, and reveal a variety of plot and character elements with great efficiency—in this case a stuttering, corporate-minded minister and a nun-assassin, a pair who were once lovers many years ago. Their exchange does much to reveal more than they intend to of who they are.
And to what name does she cuh-currently answer?
THE ABBESS OF X
Mother Magdalena Vindicta, of the Abbey of X.
Aix-en-Provence? Puh-pretty town, I vuh-visited it once in my travels.
THE ABBESS OF X
No, not Aix. X. The Abbey of X.
I Suh-said Aix.
THE ABBESS OF X
Not A-I-X. Just X
THE ABBESS OF X
Just … X.
Whereas "Hydriotaphia" is a comedy with supernatural elements, a work where Kushner has great freedom in the genesis of his characters, the based-on-life teleplay "East Coast Ode to Howard Jarvis" is a work structurally and stylistically antithetical to "Hydriotaphia." In it, fairly average people become extraordinary as they are slowly connected in a greedy game of telephone when one person tells another about a strange tax scheme. This connection, unseen by the characters involved, binds together people who wouldn't intentionally affiliate with one another. The characters become extraordinary because of the subtext that they don't know and the human relationships it reveals. By the time a reader encounters the character The Supremely Scary Girl Who Knows Practically Everything, Kushner has cast his net so wide his characters surprise by their aggregate. Some other characters worthy of mention, to illustrate the range of what Kushner is doing, are a damned Edgar (J. Edgar Hoover) in "G. David Schine in Hell" who appears "wearing a black Chanel dress, hose, and stiletto pumps" from out of a "Glinda" iridescent soap-bubble, and the characters Michael (played by Tony Kushner) and Tony (played by Michael Mayer, to whom the play is dedicated) in "Notes on Akiba."
Kushner's style, while changing to fit the needs of an individual work, stays consistent from text to text. A unifying consistency also manifests itself thematically, though Kushner, from his introduction, seems ready to deny it. A look at Angels and Death and Taxes would indicate otherwise. There are definite themes that Kushner explores again and again; he attacks the same human redoubts with a variety of theatrical tactics. His grand theme is the paradox of the human condition, living an existentially valid life in the ever-present face of death. Like a masterful orator he holds his audience spellbound while re-illustrating this essential question. Kushner's prose interjections imply this broader theme of paradox is not conscious on his part, but it continually reemerges refreshed and seemingly original in each play.
Though Kushner may be exploring a narrow range, his approach is so wonderfully theatrical that going into the same territory from so many different directions becomes exciting in and of itself. The entertainment level is so high readers gladly engage the notions and emotions set before them. Kushner is a playwright who always remembers to keep actors acting. His plays are alive with both motion and language, the actors always coming on stage with something to do and to say. His characters are dramatic because they are living the human paradox, not simply the vehicles for commentary on it. Though Angels in America may hold the spotlight and win the awards, the plays in Death & Taxes are equally stage worthy.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001