The first time I saw “Angels in America,” the awe-inspiring 1993 play about intermingled lives during the AIDS crisis, I was thrilled by the confrontation between Louis, the Jewish word processor, and Belize, the black nurse and former drag queen. Theirs is not a central relationship in the play, but I admired how playwright Tony Kushner could create a scene with dialogue that distilled so much about the relationship between blacks and Jews in the New York of 1985, as well as political/intellectual conflicts throughout the country during the Reagan era, yet still made his characters fleshed-out individuals whom I could recognize from my own experience.
That scene had a similar effect on me when I saw the 2003 HBO adaptation and the 2010 revival at the Signature. It had no such effect for me this weekend at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s Dutch-language production of the play cast two members of his theater company, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, to portray Louis and Belize — Fedja Van Huet and Roeland Fernhout….a couple of Dutch guys, with little discernible trace of anything Jewish or black or New York.
This is one of the slightest changes, truly, in a production that radically revises this epic play – a production that, despite such disappointments, ultimately worked for me.
Originally with some 20 characters, this Angels in America has only 10 characters performed by eight actors. Originally with a running time of some seven hours, here it is cut to a little bit more than four hours (with a dinner break midway through.) Gone are any scenery (not even furniture), elaborate costumes, nor even makeup to speak of: When the actress Marieke Heebink comes on stage to begin the play, performing as Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz to deliver the funeral eulogy for Louis’ grandmother, she is not wearing (as in past productions) a long white beard and a skullcap; she looks exactly the same way as she will to portray the Mormon mother Hannah Pitt, and the executed Ethel Rosenberg.
Most noticeably of all, there is no angel descending spectacularly from the skies. Now, the angel is a male E.R. nurse in surgical whites (no wings) and he stays on the stage, which is nearly bare, except for a desk with a turntable, some LPs and a couple of amplifiers. (In place of the normal sound effects, we mostly hear David Bowie tunes from the 80s. )
Van Hove’s troupe has been performing this version since 2008, reportedly to great reception in Europe. There is a little cultural adjustment required to see it in Brooklyn, which is perhaps ironic, since this is where the play is partially set. The spare approach seems especially dissonant at the moment of the arrival of the angel, with the meta/catty line: “Very Steven Spielberg” – a reliable laugh line when the winged angel crashed through the ceiling; now, with nothing at all happening, just odd.
Van Hove has said that the sparseness of the production is meant to leave room for the imagination. Others have praised it as making the piece “universal” – or bringing out its universality. Universal, of course, can be a loaded word: Theater makers (consciously or not) have often used it to reassure prospective audiences when characters are different from themselves – ethnic, gay, whatever. Reading the English supertitles above the spare stage at BAM’s Harvey Theater, I wondered: Does “universal” mean “European?”
By the end of “Angels in America,” however, I had put my intellectual qualms aside. By paring down Kushner’s work, van Hove, intentionally or not, wound up eliminating some of its excesses, its flights of fancy, especially in Part II, Perestroika, and thus leaving us a clearer view of the evolving intimacy between the characters. Intimacy is something that von Hove does well – witness his stage adaptation, just closed at the New York Theatre Workshop, of Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage
When “Angels in America” had begun, Louis learned that his long-time lover Prior had contracted AIDS, and abandoned him; Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt could no longer repress his homosexuality and abandoned his troubled, hallucinating wife Harper; repulsive McCarthyite and finagling lawyer Roy Cohn learned that he had AIDS and hallucinated a visit by Ethel Rosenberg, the woman he executed. But by the end, the separate worlds these characters inhabited have all merged into one; and a series of deeply moving one-on-one scenes between the unlikeliest of pairs melded Kushner’s great insight and compassion with the company’s bravely vulnerable acting and with van Hove’s inspired, albeit European, vision.
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Angels in America
A Toneelgroep Amsterdam production, presented as part of the Next Wave Festival by Brooklyn Academy of Music,
By Tony Kushner; directed by Ivo van Hove; sets and lighting by Jan Versweyveld; costumes by Wojciech Dziedzic; video design by Tal Yarden; music by Wim Selles; translated by Carel Alphenaar; dramaturgy, Peter van Kraaij. Running time: 5 hours 10 minutes, including a 45-minute dinner break. In Dutch with English subtitles.
Cast: Eelco Smits (Prior Walter), Fedja van Huet (Louis Ironson), Hans Kesting (Roy Cohn), Marieke Heebink (Hannah Pitt/Ethel Rosenberg), Marwan Kenzari (Joe Pitt), Hélène Devos (Harper Pitt), Roeland Fernhout (Belize/Mr. Lies) and Alwin Pulinckx (the Angel).
There were just three performances of this play at BAM, Thursday through Saturday.