3 December 2006: Wings of Desire

Matinee. American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge. Stage adaptation by Gideon Lester and Dirleje Houtman after the film of the same title, directed by Wim Wenders. Directed by Ola Mafaakani. In association with Toneelgroep Amsterdam

Many hands make light work in this radically different (I take it) adaptation of Wenders’s film about transition in Berlin. The overall fictional frame is just that, a frame, in which various characters identify themselves and, in some way or other, tell their stories, even while a Homer character, “an immortal poet” (Frieda Pittoors), wanders the stage, though “blind,” and complains that people don’t tell stories anymore. There is a little more to the frame: two angels, Daniel (Bernard White) and Cassiel (Mark Rosenthal), who begin by perching on top of a large white snack wagon that is wheeled on stage and, reading from their Mole­skine notebooks, report the news of the day, and then proceed to jump down and mingle invisibly with the various humans on stage. Gradually, as they do so, we begin to get the idea that Daniel is looking to become human, and it later appears that there are other angels who have become human before now. One of them is on stage, in a fine performance by Stephen Payne; others, we are to presume, are scattered throughout the audience.

But the stellar attraction is Marion, a trapeze artist, a slim woman with a beau­­t­iful body (Mam Smith) who is both extremely graceful and tremendously strong, and who does her gymnastic whirls and turns and somersaults and flips and dives, not on a conventional trapeze but on a parachute-like cloth suspended like a long loop twenty or twenty-five feet above the stage. We find out that, in her personal fiction, this is the last night of her career as a trapeze artist, and she is melancholy and morose over the question of what will become of her identity once she no longer does this. At the end of the performance, or near the end (one hour forty-five minutes, no intermission) Daniel changes his angel costume (a plain dark suit, open-collared white shirt) for a print shirt, and then doffs that too, so that he is bare-chested. He has fallen in love with the aerialist, and she comes back on, in something more like ordinary clothes (earlier she wore a sequin­ed bra and G-string over a body stocking — to the delight, I’m sure, of many eyes in the audience), climbs onto her cloth hoop, and draws the willing Daniel up and into her orbit, where once again we are mightily well-entertained and, finally, observe that Daniel has become human, can now see colors, etc. (did you know that angels can only see black and white?), and is in love, with all the pleasures and tribulations that come to human beings.

At the side of the stage, meanwhile — the entire performance has the general ad libitum character of “meanwhile,” like a circus ring where much is going on at the same time, more or less — two electrified guitars are sometimes playing, at ear-offending volume; earlier, the female half of the guitar team, another beaut­iful blonde woman, Hadewych Minis, has been singing slowly and thoughtfully in a truly gorgeous mezzo voice. I would have loved to hear more of that and would willingly have traded all of the hard-rock jangle for five more minutes of her soulful singing.

Well, that was it. Oh, except that the set was made up of a lot of white plastic garden chairs that people sat on a lot or else threw off to the side; they seemed indestructible. And one other thing: from the top of the flies, narrow columns of . . . stuff: heavier-than-air flakes, that fell down onto the stage and piled up there, illuminated by spotlights on the floor of the stage shining straight up, to the full height of the columns of flakes — these are tiny flakes, or whatever they were, piling up like white or yellow dust in shallow mounds on the stage floor. Oh, and there was a kid, ten or twelve years old, who was helping out in the snack bar at first but then abandoned his tasks there in favor of scooting around the stage on a skateboard, to his own delight but to no one else’s; he wasn’t very good at it. And the snack bar proprietor every so often came down stage and delivered himself of a tirade, angry as all get out-out about something or other, and tending to lapse into Dutch screamed at the top of his lungs. At one point the former angel said to him, “I didn’t understand a single thing you said,” at which the audience laughed in relief, because we didn’t either.

So there it is. What did it all mean? It seemed that it would have been a mis­take to take this production as a deeply ponderous, soul-wrenching exploration, through a series of potent symbols, of the life-denying soullessness of modern life. It was best just to take it as a lighthearted entertainment and forgo any irrit­able search after deeper meanings. Well, okay, but still, what about the angels? At one point the aerialist put on a huge pair of angel wings, fully the equal of those that Emma Thompson appeared in at the end of Act I of that wonderful HBO production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and she proceeded to ascend on high in them in her flexible trapeze.

Holy smoke! What a show! It was bloody wonderful. Never mind what it all might have meant. We got a good glimpse of the sorrow and the wonder of what it is to be human, and we found out a nice idea of what preterhuman interven­tion into quotidian reality might be like, if we pause to think about it long enough. Not a bad bargain, finally, for a cold December Sunday afternoon. Now that I look back on it, I feel almost ashamed for feeling — as I did for a while — that I had been cheated of some Insistent Deeper Meaning. It was enough, finally, to watch some really skilled, experienced actors and singers do what they can do best. Summing up the tone of the whole thing was the farewell greeting projected at the top of the upstage wall at the end: “Dedicated to all former angels in the audience.”

Enough said.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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