Angels in America. BAM Harvey Theater (see Off Broadway). By Tony Kushner. Directed by Ivo Van Hove. With ensemble cast. Running time: 5hrs 10mins. One intermission. In Dutch with English supertitles.
Angels in America: In brief
Flemish provocateur Ivo van Hove and his Dutch troupe, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, revisit Tony Kushner's era-defining 1990s masterwork in a stripped-down, five-hour production. Hans Kesting stars as the nefarious Republican apparatchik and closet case Roy Cohn.
Angels in America: Theater review by Helen Shaw
The Toneelgroep Amsterdam production of both parts of Tony Kushner's Angels in America runs just over five hours, but don't let that deter you. There's a long dinner break between Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, and yet director Ivo Van Hove could probably have stormed on through—it's a gorgeous, absorbing production, and cramping legs can't distract from its glacial beauty.
Angels, with its constant wheeling through locations, often tempts directors into busy, set-mad productions (most recently, Michael Greif's Signature revival), but van Hove and designer Jan Versweyveld resist in their customarily elegant fashion. Against the back wall, huge screens show washed-out, frequently overexposed videos (a child's feet dangling from a swing, a street outside, dunes), while the rest of the stage remains almost completely bare. Actors enter and declaim from the extreme downstage edge; apart from entrances, performers rarely appear in the upstage reaches. It's a spacious and strangely focusing approach to Kushner's baroque script, a cool cloth on a patient's fevered brow.
Angels is a modern classic—it's our time's Henriad, a Shakespearian romance full of the palpable sweep of history. Instead of France, the enemy is AIDS: Dastardly commie-hating, gay-bashing lawyer Roy Cohn (Hans Kesting) contracts it, as does sweet Prior Walter (Eelco Smits), though he hears heavenly messages and trembles on the “threshold of revelation.” Walter’s boyfriend, Louis (Fedja van Huêt), flees him and falls into the arms of Joe (Marwan Kenzari), who has abandoned his drug-addled wife, yet every personal betrayal leads somehow back to the disease. It's not just Kushner's ability to swing from comic dialogue to lyrical excess that will remind you of the Bard: Shakespeare too lived through a plague.
Kushner's plays are written so that they are a pleasure to read, so here, supertitles actually add to our enjoyment. Van Hove's staging is cool, sometimes arch. Yet the experience of reading the dialogue warms the experience, slipping the text into our own, inner, intimate voice. Theatergoers who speak Dutch are no doubt having a wonderful time, but perversely, I felt somehow that those of us reading the supertitles were the lucky ones. The translation/adaptation also does a neat job of trimming Kushner's leggy structure. Would an English-speaking company have been so bold in its cuts, scissoring out the dullest parts of Perestroika? I'm grateful this one has.
There is an elephant in the room—or as Kushner would have put it, a monolith. Namely, when van Hove can cast a white guy, he does. Black drag queen Belize is played by a white man (Roeland Fernhout, doing strong work). The Angel is played by a white man, wearing not wings but brilliant white scrubs. The score is all cuts from David Bowie albums—even the music is by the Thin White Duke. It may be that van Hove isn't bothered about casting with an eye to race; Utah Mormon Joe is played by an actor of Tunisian extraction. But in a play that has wonderful, passionate hymns to diversity (Belize envisions a heaven with “Creole gods”), there's little on display.
Still, it's a first-rate production of a masterpiece, one that reveals the play's clean, strong bones and pays honest tribute to its scope. And if you need more reason to see it: Go for the central trio of Roy, Prior and Louis. For those who saw Van Hove's Roman Tragedies, there is no greater treat than seeing these actors commanding BAM again. That production's Mark Antony turns into this one's Roy Cohn—still silver-tongued, still leonine, still letting power addle him. And that Coriolanus becomes this Louis—still arrogant, still violent, still lost. I can think of no deeper theatrical joy than seeing a repertory company reveling thus in its own virtuosity and history, proudly wearing the ghosts of old roles. And for those of us who have been lucky enough to see them in both roles, you'll see the halos of old tragedies hanging round these new ones.—Theater review by Helen Shaw