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The Angel Project directed by Deborah Warner
Somebody's Watching
By Don Shewey

The Angel Project
Lincoln Center Festival
July 1-27, 2003

 

One of the scenes that haunted me most from Tony Kushnerís Angels in America was cut after the first production at San Franciscoís Eureka Theater. Nothing much happened, just two tired hospital nurses -- a white lesbian and a black gay man -- having breakfast after the night shift. But to me they represented the real angels in America, ordinary humans doing Godís everyday work, more than any winged apparition out of a Spielberg movie or a New Age greeting card. I guess that was pretty much the premise of the popular TV show "Touched by an Angel," which routinely portrayed accidents averted and emotions soothed by the kindness of supernatural strangers. Deborah Warnerís The Angel Project, which ran July 1-27 as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, also walked the line between mystical and mundane, with a streak of melancholy added to the mix. Once the exhilarating novelty of the adventure wore off, I realized that I was left with a heart-aching consciousness of the powerful unseen forces at work below the surface of life in the big city, including a grief that is older than September 11, older than AIDS, older than Times Square.

Nearly everything about The Angel Project toyed with the basic elements of theatergoing. It wasnít exactly a "show" -- it was a walking meditation with an itinerary linking nine locations, mostly in midtown Manhattan, some of them completely uninhabited. It wasnít exactly "performed" -- at least 29 actors participated as designated angels, but they never spoke or enacted scenes, and much of the experience consisted of the viewer moving through New York City with a heightened awareness. Even buying a ticket wasnít simple -- you made an appointment for your "journey" (scheduled at five-minute intervals from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. most days) and showed up not at some box office but at the tram station on Roosevelt Island. There someone picked you up in a golf cart and took you to the southernmost tip of the island, where you waited your turn to enter a nondescript trailer for your pre-journey briefing.

What a place to wait! In a wide-open field smack in the middle of the East River, looking out at the Manhattan skyline, the Queens waterfront, and the vast open sky, all of it looking back at you. Almost all the themes that emerged in The Angel Project were present from the first instant: waiting, watching, being seen and being invisible, time, New York City, your personal history with the city, an Alice-in-Wonderland sense of shifting dimensions, the vulnerable and sensual experience of life in a body.

Numerous site-specific theater pieces have used the city as a backdrop before. In 1980, Anne BogartĎs The Emissions Project allowed viewers to watch soap-operatic scenes played out on street corners and in apartment windows. In the 1990s, Anne Hamburgerís En Garde Arts company created a series of outdoor spectacles, including Reza Abdohís Father Was a Peculiar Man, which herded audiences all over the meatpacking district, and Mac Wellmanís Bad Penny, which unfolded on the Bow Bridge in Central Park. There was a make-your-own-experience quality to The Angel Project that gave it a family resemblance to interactive theater events as disparate as Tamara, Tony & Tinaís Wedding, The Donkey Show, and Chris Hardmanís Walkman theater piece Antenna. Unlike those shows, in which the audience shared the same time and space, The Angel Project was designed as a solo venture. You went at your own pace, taking two to three hours, depending on how long you lingered at each site.

I couldnít have picked a more perfect time for my trip -- 4:00 on a clear, sunny Friday afternoon. A friendly young woman shows me the long thin booklet of directions that will guide me and encourages me to do the tour in silence, to take my time and not feel rushed, even if I encounter other patrons. The immediate effect of launching the journey is wondering, nervously and/or excitedly, whatís part of the show and whatís not. Am I supposed to linger here enjoying the view, or should I race to the first site? The father with his small daughter playing in the field -- are they planted? That intriguing abandoned building nearby -- will crawling around that be part of the tour? Apparently not -- the golf cart that picks me up zooms right by it and deposits me under the 59th Street bridge.

At the first stop, Iím surprised and pleased to encounter Nicky Paraiso, a downtown actor Iíve seen many times onstage and socially. Already my personal history of New York theater (memories of Nicky as the musical maestro of Jeff Weissís Hot Keys) is intruding on The Angel Project. We acknowledge one another wordlessly, and he points to the door of a wooden shack and a small handwritten sign that says "Knock and enter." The bare structure has two windows. Through one I watch Nicky assume his character -- a fishing pole and thermos nearby tell their tale -- and I follow his gaze out across the river. I move to the other window and look down at a man sitting in a rowboat mending a net. He turns his head and his eyes meet mine with shocking directness -- a slow, eerie, penetrating gaze. Who are these fishermen? Is this a Christian reference? Is there a narrative here?

When the next patron knocks and enters, I leave the shed and walk away. Then I remember the instructions -- donít feel rushed -- and wonder if I missed something by leaving the site so quickly. On my way to the subway, I pass an elderly man in a hat and sports jacket hungrily eyeing the catered lunch spread out for local hospital workers. Is he part of the show? As instructed, I take the escalator down to the platform and wait for the F train. That young man with the basketball sitting across the tracks from me -- is he part of the show? Riding to Times Square, I marvel at how simply Deborah Warner has nudged me out of my usual subway-riding habits of reading or listening to music on headphones. My attention to the dense population of mute strangers passing me by conjures Wim Wendersís film Wings of Desire, surely an influence on The Angel Project.

I follow directions to an anonymous apartment building on Sixth Avenue, where I tour two shabby, almost bare apartments that show signs of recent inhabitation (an unmade bed). City maps, pages from the phone book with names circled, and binoculars on the windowsill suggest a creepy form of surveillance. Who lives here, and where are they? While some maps point to churches, I canít help thinking about terrorist cells. Are these the dreary temporary lodgings of itinerant underground criminals? I sit in the chairs provided, peek through the binoculars at windows opposite and at people on the street, expecting but not finding scenes staged for my discovery. At the next site, an office building nearby, I take the elevator to the 27th floor and walk into a more obviously composed art installation. Itís a large light-filled room with two rows of standing lockers (the open ones contain angel props -- prayer cards and heraldic trumpets), a cage with two small birds, and an astonishing, carefully groomed, four-foot-wide strip of white feathers on the floor. (These environments were presumably coordinated by installation designer Tom Pye.) The windows that line the room look out on (among other things) the previous site, a spectacular overview of Bryant Park, and ornately detailed specimens of midtown architecture.

The Angel Project directed by Deborah WarnerThe next stop on the angel-hunt is the Peep-o-Rama on 42nd Street, a mirrored storefront whose musty-smelling and dimly lit backroom proves to be furnished not with coin-operated porn booths but with bins of antiquated religious texts from every imaginable spiritual discipline. I flip through a few books, pondering the trail of evidence so far, which has the scent of abandonment and extinct traditions. Where are the girls? Where are the angels? Coming out of the backroom, I sit for a while on a folding chair and watch the theater of 42nd Street -- Iím looking through a window that passersby see as a mirror. I wonder if some scene will play out if I wait long enough. That young man who stops to check his hair -- is he an actor?

But nothing happens. Iím bored and hot, so I follow directions to the island in the middle of Times Square, past the police station and the Army recruiting station. Besides the dizzying visual blare, Iím aware of this location as one that officials view as a prime target for terrorist action and the heightened security surveillance that goes with that, not to mention the various TV shows filmed here with pedestrians gawking in through the picture windows. Whoís watching me right now? The booklet guides me to One Times Square, the triangular building covered with billboards and TV screens and the news zipper. On my way there, I pass a young white woman dressed as a nun standing stock-still reading a Bible. Aha! Sheís clearly an actor, the first one Iíve seen since the two fishermen on Roosevelt Island. But Times Square is such a zoo, nobody seems to notice her.

Inside the building, which turns out to be surprisingly derelict and devoid of permanent occupants, I take the elevator to 15 and follow taped arrows from one floor to another, walking through a series of unpredictable tableaux. An empty office dangles many invitations for snooping. The file cabinets contain a lot of old baby pictures, hand-written wedding announcements, even a few pages from the Menendez brothersí trial (?!). A blindfolded actor lies sprawled on a giant palm leaf, next to an enormous cardboard coffin. Next door: a room containing more than a dozen caged birds (are they baby angels, or fellow travelers?) and revolving fans. Down the hall: a room of junked computers and then several surveillance monitors, one of which runs a video of a bearded man standing in the middle of Times Square holding a lamb in his arms. Upstairs: a triangular room that is a garden of white lilies sprouting out of several inches of some snow-white substance. (Salt? Sugar? Sand? I taste it. Salt.) A very black man sits silently by the door -- angel or security guard? I exit this room into an area set up with a dozen buckets of water with washcloths and towels for some kind of cleansing ritual I canít fathom.

On another floor the arrows lead to a big deserted corner office with a huge oak desk, a dazzling view of Times Square, and a fax machine spewing pages from Miltonís "Paradise Lost." I sit in the comfy swivel chair and flip through the Rolodex, which is all travel agencies. Angels, birds, airplanes -- is there a poem here, or am I straining for connections? Leaving this office, I almost miss an arrow pointing to a closed door. I walk in and am startled to find two people and a tiny apple tree crammed into a small carpeted space. A bearded man sits on the floor (I recognize him as the guy in the video holding the lamb), and a young woman jams herself against the windowsill. She gives me that slow, eerie angel look. Thereís a distinct feeling in the room of anguish, tension, incarceration. I want to flee immediately, but I force myself to hang out and see if something happens. The two of them shift positions -- she sits down, he stands up -- but the tension neither increases nor evaporates. Are they meant to be angels, or souls in torment, or both? It occurs to me that perhaps something is expected from me. A blessing, maybe. Hunting for angels, do we become angels ourselves? I leave that room with a disturbed feeling that is perfectly captured in the Rilke poem scrawled on the wall of the elevator lobby I next walk into: "Angels, it is said, are often unsure whether they pass among the living or the dead."

My guidebook leads me from there to the middle of the block that used to be known as "the Deuce," when porn theaters and B-movie houses lined 42nd Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue instead of a tacky suburban mall. An unmarked door behind a souvenir stand leads to the breathtaking remains of the Liberty Theater, the disused former vaudeville house in which Deborah Warner staged T.S. Eliotís "The Waste Land" as a solo performance by Fiona Shaw in 1996. Stripped to bare walls and floor, this site turns out to be more alive than any other so far. A shirtless young man lies on a sheet of cellophane, ostensibly sleeping. Onstage, a bouncer sits next to the loading dock. In the balcony thereís one -- no, two! black men wearing enormous black-feathered wings peering down, perfectly still, with spotlit ladders behind them rising to the ceiling. A very old, thin white woman sits on a straight-back chair in the middle of the orchestra seats. I recognize her as Irma St. Paule, a wonderful actress who once jokingly acknowledged that people hire her because she looks like the oldest actress in the world. (She played Flaubertís dead mother on video in the Wooster Groupís Frank Dellís The Temptation of St. Anthony.) I approach to within a few feet of her. Thereís a connection between us she knows nothing about: she toured for six months with a dear friend of mine who died of AIDS in 1989. Standing this close to her conjures the presence of my friend. Tears come to my eyes. She looks at me, we both smile. I feel almost dizzy with the sense of being between two worlds.

This tableau vivant at the Liberty calls to mind performance art pieces such as Marina Abramovicís "The House with the Ocean View," in which she lived on a shelf in an art gallery on display for 12 days. I marvel at the meditative discipline of these actors. Can they really sustain these poses continuously for 12 hours a day? (Later I read that they worked in two shifts.)

Walking out of this spooky half-life into the crowd outside Madame Tussaudís feels like trudging through a carnival coming home from a funeral, with a secret in my heart and the smell of popcorn in the air. I go back to the subway and take the shuttle to Grand Central Station. I traverse that spectacular theater space and enter the Chrysler Building across the street, where I take the elevator to the 63rd floor. Strains of magnificent choral music welcome me to the recently vacated offices of some dot-com company. I turn the corner and thereís a sleeping angel with giant white wings sprawled on the industrial carpet in the middle of the hallway. At the end of the hall, a heavyset man sits with his back turned looking out at the most glorious view of New York City that I can imagine. Empty offices on either side of his give me the opportunity soak in this (birdís-eye?) view myself.

I wander down the hall and in the window of another empty office find perched another actor I recognize, Keith McDermott. He was once a beautiful boy who played opposite Richard Burton in the Broadway production of Equus. He lived for a time with the writer Edmund White, whose novel Caracole turned Keith into an actress named Edwige who stars in a hit play synopsized thus: "The heroine is silent in the first act, nude in the second, and smothered to death by feathers in the third." Now heís a handsome man with fine lines around his clear green eyes. Even without wings, he is perfectly cast as an angel, the kind of beneficent being you might hope is stationed high above the city, keeping an eye on things. He has the same kind of luminous, soulful face as Bruno Ganz, the angel who broods all over Berlin in Wings of Desire. By this point in The Angel Project Iíve been emboldened to do that thing thatís usually impossible in the theater, which is to create your own close-up. I walk right up to Keith and look in his eyes. He holds my gaze. We could speak, we could touch, but we donít. I could think of this as a lark, or I could consider it darshan, an audience with a holy man. When I let myself risk the latter, the moment takes on a different aura, time out of time. This encounter is both real and imaginary -- in other words, theatrical.

Down the hall I peek into the kitchen, where a young chubby black man lolls on the counter like a baby seal on the beach, with tiny white wings sprouting from his back. Itís disconcerting to confront such a character and not speak. Whatís he doing here? He doesnít look very comfortable on that counter. I walk over to the window and canít help noticing that from here I can see quite clearly the trailer in the field on Roosevelt Island where this journey began. Someone else in a golf cart is just beginning.

I walk to the elevator, turn the page in my booklet, and am relieved to find that Iím at the end of The Angel Project. Iím full to the brim with feelings and images.

Warner had staged The Angel Project twice before, first at the 1999 London International Festival of Theater (when it was called The Tower Project) and then in 2000 at the Perth International Arts Festival in Australia. The New York version gained considerable resonance from the aftermath of September 11; not many cities have the ashes of 3000 people still sitting mixed with soot and soil in trees and backyards. Nonetheless, ghostly sadness seems to be programmed into the piece. I know I brought my own idiosyncratic associations to the piece, but I was struck by Warnerís ingenuity in creating an event that so palpably evoked urban experiences that canít be verbally dramatized, most notably the sedimentary layers of history associated with both places and people. Iím thinking especially of the people you see for years (in the bank, at the gym, onstage, in the next apartment), about whom you collect odd fragments of information. You donít actually know them, and yet youíre connected somehow.

I found The Angel Project fascinating and fun to witness, and I was haunted by the experience for days. The one thing I missed was the opportunity to compare notes with others who saw it. I know my comprehension of Warnerís production of Medea (which opened at BAM last fall and had a run on Broadway this spring) wasnít complete until I talked about it with my friend Sarah afterwards. The Angel Project remains an entirely solitary meditation.

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