The Monolith Is Missing

Last weekend, the American masterpiece Angels in America was revived in a Dutch translation at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn.  Belgian director Ivo van Hove has pared down Tony Kushner’s play—which one character, commenting on the spectacle of it, calls “Very Steven Spielberg”—so that all that remains are the characters and their conversations.  There are no angels crashing through ceilings, no female actresses in full rabbi regalia, only a small table in the corner of the stage with a record player.

Mr. Kushner’s play, which is subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, posits that God abdicated His throne around the time of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, leaving man and angel alike without His guidance or protection.  In Reagan’s America, Prior Walker (Eelco Smits), recently diagnosed with AIDS, is visited by one of these angels (Alwin Pulinckx), but resists taking on his role as a modern prophet.  His ex-boyfriend Louis Ironson (Fedja van Huet), who fled at the first sign of sickness, finds comfort in a repressed homosexual Mormon, Joe Pitt (Marwan Kenzari), whose wife Harper (Hélène Devos) occasionally meets Prior in her Valium hallucinations.  Joe is a protégé of “New York’s number one closeted queer,” Roy Cohn (Hans Kesting), who is himself dying of AIDS while arguing with the spirit of Ethel Rosenberg (Marieke Heebink).

A five-hour Dutch version of Angels in America is probably the definition of “not for everyone,” but those with the patience for it were rewarded with the kind of experience that establishes live theater as the most immediate and emotional of all art forms.  To call it a Gay Fantasia on National Themes is oddly reductive; like Moby Dick, this is a massive, all-inclusive narrative that seems to address nearly everything a person could care about: Mr. Kushner juxtaposes the foundational Abrahamic religion (Judaism) with its newest significant incarnation (American Mormonism), he pairs modern society with an ancient conception of theology, he examines how identity politics becomes complicated by national politics—ultimately, it feels like it would take less time to list what Angels in America is not about.

The entire cast here is spectacular (it is impressive that they all make it all the way through this marathon production without collapsing), but Ms. Heebink stands out, not only as the cagey Ethel Rosenbaum, back from the afterlife to playfully and almost sympathetically taunt her executioner, but also as Joe’s mother Hannah Pitt, whose religious orthodoxy is always checked by her irrepressible generosity and understanding.  Indeed, Hannah Pitt may be the heart of the entire play.  In the 1980’s, was there anyone more equipped to imagine that God had abandoned him than a gay Jew in New York City, who, while recovering from one extermination was facing another?  But Mr. Kushner is an optimistic humanist before anything else, and Angels in America is not so much about death as it is about carrying on.  Here, “threshold of revelation” is not reached by speaking with angels but with other people.

Angels in America ran through October 25th at the BAM Harvey Theater.  651 Fulton Street  Brooklyn, NY.  5 hours 10 minutes.  One 45-minute intermission.  In Dutch with English titles.  In Dutch with English supertitles.

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Aaron Botwick

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