After rave reviews overseas, ‘Angry Alan’ returns to Aspen Fringe Festival
Since the first performance of playwright Penelope Skinner’s “Angry Alan” at the Aspen Fringe Festival two years ago, the seminal one-man play has landed cross-continental productions and become the toast of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and London’s West End.
This weekend the play and the actor Donald Sage Mackay, who’s performed it from the beginning, are bringing “Angry Alan” back to Aspen Fringe for a Wheeler Opera House performance Saturday night.
Mackay plays Roger, a seemingly affable straight white guy who feels alienated by the progress toward gender equality and who falls under the influence of an online men’s rights provocateur dubbed “Angry Alan.” Skinner, an acclaimed British playwright and Mackay’s off-stage partner, wrote this darkly comic portrait specifically for Mackay.
“The kind of theater I like to do is changing people’s minds and hearts and I feel like this does that,” Mackay said this week from London, where he joined the protests against President Donald Trump’s state visit.
The president is mentioned just once in the play, and it’s not an anti-Trump work, though it tackles the toxic masculinity, aspects of the #MeToo movement and online radicalization of white men that have attended the Trump era. “Angry Alan” goes to the heart of the far-right movements that have gripped the U.S. and Europe in recent years. And it does so in a way that all the books and journalistic think-pieces and social media posts about it haven’t been able to yet.
“People respond to my character because he is a likeable guy and we’re with him for part of it, and as it turns darker you go ‘uh-oh,’” Mackay said. “But you feel for him throughout. It allows you to have empathy for him.”
As Skinner put it during rehearsals for the original Aspen Fringe performance, “My hope is that we’ll reach the person in the audience who might feel some reflection of their experience, or they’ll see something in the play they’ve struggled with or wondered about, and then they might have a conversation about it.”
The full house at the June 2017 performance at Aspen’s Black Box Theatre included the artistic director of a theater in Delhi, who approached Skinner and Mackay after the show and booked “Angry Alan” for India, noting that the country has its own version of the men’s rights movement as it grapples with women’s ascendance in the workplace and changing gender roles in Indian society.
“He said, ‘Men are having difficulty and this piece speaks to the zeitgeist of the moment,’” Mackay recalled.
During Mackay’s two performances there, the audiences included men’s rights proponents who cried out during the show in support of Mackay’s character as he falls into the misogynistic ideology of the movement.
“The talk-back afterwards was very interesting because there were guys in the audience who were against the message of the piece and they were shut-down by the majority of the audience, especially the women,” Mackay recalled.
From there, “Angry Alan” earned a spot in Edinburgh backed by producer Francesca Moody, whose “Fleabag” launched from the 2013 Edinburgh festival to acclaimed West End and Off-Broadway runs before being adapted into a smash BBC and Amazon series. When Moody took interest, Mackay and Skinner began to understand “Angry Alan” might take off.
It quickly did. At Edinburgh last summer, it sold out for its entire month-long run and won the coveted Fringe First Award, which earned it a run at London’s Soho Theatre. Quickly it was one the theater world’s most talked-about new plays.
“It was pretty exciting that we got that kind of response,” Mackay said.
The show landed a spot on New York Times theater critic Matt Wolf’s short list of the best plays in Europe in 2018. (Wolf wrote, “Mackay’s shrewdly observed performance charts a slide toward psychosis that allows the actor to both charm and chill.”)
The show’s London producers also bought the television rights to “Angry Alan” and, according to Mackay, are working with a major studio to adapt it for the screen.
“It could get the message of this piece out to millions of people who can’t get out to the theater,” Mackay said.
The play’s runaway success is a feather in the cap of Aspen Fringe, which is on a years-long roll of creative coups including visits, productions and workshops by of-the-moment playwrights like Skinner, Lucas Hnath and Sharr White. Bringing “Angry Alan” — which Skinner has revised — back to Aspen for its first full American production was a natural fit.
“We thought, ‘Why not bring it back to Aspen where it all started and do it at the Wheeler?’” Mackay said. “It’s exciting. It’s a piece that speaks to the moment in an incredible way. We didn’t know it would have this sort of response.”
Mackay said he had a sense after that first Aspen reading that “Angry Alan” could be something special.
“In Aspen I had an inkling, and then in India I said, ‘Wow, this can really touch people in different cultures.’ And Edinburgh, of course, was ridiculously amazing. At that point I knew we had something.”
Mackay, longtime co-artistic director at the Fringe Fest, has been a staple of its productions through most of its 11 years. Local theatergoers have recognized him in television parts over the years, including “Mad Men” (he was the doctor who delivered Peggy Olson’s baby), “Modern Family” and most recently in a major role on “Deep State,” now in its second season on Fox.
Along with planning an international tour and plotting a possible New York run for “Angry Alan,” Mackay is due to star in the upcoming London production of Conor McPherson’s play with Bob Dylan music, “Girl from the North Country,” which drew acclaim for its New York run last fall.
Amid all this recognition, he’s proud to return to the familiar stages of Aspen.
“I’m thrilled to finally bring ‘Angry Alan’ back to America for the first time,” Mackay said. “I feel so sad for what’s happening in America. Bringing ‘Angry Alan’ back to Aspen, it feels redemptive to me to land on American soil and do it.”
“Angry Alan” is the centerpiece of an issues-driven Fringe Fest lineup that opens today at the Wheeler with San Francisco-based PUSH Dance Co. performing the multimedia “Codelining.” Choreographed by Raissa Simpson, the ballet is a commentary on gentrification in the Bay Area and beyond. The performance caps a Fringe residency for the company.
“She is a choreographer who has something to say,” Fringe Fest dance director Adrianna Thompson said of Simpson.
The festival closes with a two-night Fringe Lab workshop production of David Ireland’s “Ulster American” at the Black Box on Monday and Tuesday. The explosive comedy about abuses of power and patriarchy centers on an Oscar-winning American actor and an Irish playwright-director pair. It came to the festival’s attention during its run at Edinburgh Fringe last summer and has yet to be produced in the U.S. Directed by Fringe mainstay Maurice Lamee, “Ulster American” reunites former Aspenite Nikki Boxer with actor and Fringe Fest founder David Ledingham — the pair who co-led a scorching 2014 production of “Venus in Fur” that remains one of the most talked-about in the festival’s history.
“These pieces allow audiences to evaluate issues, make up their own minds,” Ledingham said of 2019’s topical lineup. “It can make a difference in their lives and what they want to support or not support.”
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