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'Angels In America' Actor Mark Robbins Reveals The Joy In Playing 'Venal' Roy Cohn

Don Ipock
Kansas City Repertory Theatre

Angels in America is Tony Kushner’s two-part epic now playing at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. Set in New York in the 1980s, it’s a commentary on AIDS, religion, politics, and love in the Reagan era.

In its cast of fictional characters, one real-life historical figure stands out: Roy Cohn. A sidekick to Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, Cohn was a lifelong conservative crusader. But Cohn was also gay, and he died of AIDS in 1986. I sat down with actor Mark Robbins to talk about the rewards of playing this powerful man of contradictions who is now all but forgotten.

Robbins: "Yeah I think among certain segments of the population his name was a household word. Certainly among members of the gay community who knew what was going on, Roy Cohn was very familiar."

Was he familiar to you?

"No, not until my first exposure to Angels in America did I have any idea who he was. I first saw Angels in America sometime in, must have been the late ‘90s, in New York."

Other than what’s in the script, how do you prepare for a part like that?

"Tony Kushner made no bones about the fact that this was not an accurate biographical depiction of Roy Cohn.

I always liken it to the way William Shakespeare wrote Richard the Third. He used the iconography and the mythical status of the guy to tell the story he wanted to tell. He had an agenda. So historical accuracy was not important to him. I think it was not terribly important to Kushner either.

It’s really hard to know how his depiction of Roy Cohn jibes with the actual guy. There seems to be precious few video clips available of Cohn, I’ve seen as many as I could find. I think I’ve done enough to make me feel like I know enough like I feel like I know who this guy is in the context of the play."

So who is he in the context of the play?

"A very complicated, very complex person.

"I think his most salient personal trait is his belief that he has no boundaries. He feels he has the right to do whatever he wants to do, and pursue whatever goals he wants to pursue, because he does feel that his goals are righteous, maybe just because they’re his.

"He remained closeted not so much because he was afraid of coming out but it was strategically advantageous for him to keep under wraps. But he didn’t really stay very tightly under wraps – he just made sure that it was never identified with the Roy Cohn persona, which is an incredible feat of keeping plates spinning in the air. His very first line in the play is, 'I wish I was an octopus – eight loving arms and all those suckers.' He had to be one to keep his fingers on all the possible ways that he could be undermined.

"In the same way, I think Kushner looks at Roy as this repository of everything that’s venal, mean, and for lack of a better word, hyper conservative in what’s going on in politics in America, so he could use him to make the point he wants to make."

Is there a part that demands more of you emotionally than other parts?

"A lot of Roy is just vitriol, just anger. That is the emotion most readily accessible to any actor. People in their first days of acting school so often they’ll go straight to anger. It’s easily accessible. It’s a pleasure, a guilty pleasure that Roy is so angry all the time.

"But anger is counterpoised and probably complimented by fear. When I can tap into those times when he is truly afraid when he feels death approaching, there are moments of real fear. And Kushner’s written him this wonderful death bed moment that turns out to be a joke, it turns out to be a twist, but takes him back to a very primal childlike, juvenile, frightened place, which is a pleasure for me as well. Because in the context of the play, it’s very easy to get there. It’s very easy to play that.

The Kansas City Star’s theater critic Robert Trussell wrote that the play “still retains the power to surprise, amuse and enrage.” But the political landscape is much different now, particularly around AIDS, we have a generation of adults who weren’t even born in the mid-80s when events were inspiring Tony Kushner. So I’m wondering for today’s audience, what is it that makes the play so relevant?

"I think oppression of a class of people is something that sadly never goes out of style in this country as it does in so many others. There are systemic problems with the power structure. Oppression and marginalization is still a problem. As long as those things are true, the play will remain relevant as an allegory if nothing else."

Angels in America — Part I: Millennium Approaches and Part II: Perestroika | Presented in rotating repertory through March 29 at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre's Copaken Stage | 1 H&R Block Way, Kansas City, Mo., 64105 | 816-235-2700

A free press is among our country’s founding principles and most precious resources. As director of content-journalism at KCUR, I want everyone in our part of America to know we see them and we’re listening. I work to make sure the stories we tell and the conversations we convene reflect our complex realities, informing and inspiring all of us to meet the profound challenges of our time. Email me at cj@kcur.org.
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