For a play about transformation, and one that has seen so many productions, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America still had to wait two decades for its most radical make-over. But Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s production of this landmark work of 20th century theater, directed by Ivo van Hove, is the one that will go down in the books as the Angels that took flight on the wings of a dove.
It’s been called the “bare-bones” version of Kushner’s sweeping tale of the AIDS epidemic in Reagan-era America; no drag queens or ceiling-crashing angels here. Streamlined seems a better descriptor of van Hove’s limpid vision, condensing all that loaded context into melancholy street views projected across an empty stage and Bowie playing on a turntable. If anything is missing from Kushner’s entwined narratives of two men’s descent into AIDS and the coming-of-age of the gay community (besides some excised scenes and a good hour of running time), you’d be hard pressed to want it back.
Instead, there is Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s luminous ensemble, which takes possession of the open space by running in huge looping arcs across it, like children on a playground. The cast brings such humor and sincerity to the many roles, even to the corrupt Roy Cohn (played with a gravelly depth by Hans Kesting) that the production wears an aura of innocence and honesty. That emotional pull is heightened by van Hove’s overlapping and intersecting of scenes, underlining the common struggles of the disparate characters, enfolding them all into one family stricken by AIDS.
While several of the female roles are occupied by male actors here – in particular the Angel (an athletic Alwin Pulinckx, who also plays Prior’s nurse and never changes out of his hospital uniform) – the two actresses, Hélène Devos as Harper Pitt and Marieke Heebink, in the triple role of Hannah Pitt, Ethel Rosenberg and the Rabbi, are show-stoppers. Devos’ Harper is a diaphanous waif who hardly seems to touch the ground: an angelic presence who shines good on everyone she meets. Heebink, on the other hand, turns in a trio of muscular performances that keep the action grounded in the complexities of Kushner’s text. Among the male roles, Eelco Smits’s Prior Walter faces his death with a boyish, devil-may-care attitude while, as his nurse Belize, Roeland Fernhout is an impish companion of the dying.
Dispensing with any signs of the text’s tension between the sacred and the profane or its Reagan-era context, van Hove relies on the resonant power of the 1980s to provide the political and emotional backdrop. While the soundtrack (“Young Americans,” “Golden Years,” “This Is Not America,” “Space Oddity”) is not exactly of the same time period, Bowie’s music captures the decadence and the anxiety of that decade. Van Hove’s interpretation of Kushner’s angel, as played by Pulinckx, is similarly ambiguous: a menacing force of destiny that must be fought back for life to continue, unleashed in two powerfully choreographed sequences.
A silhouetted image of the Bethesda fountain in Central Park is also here, however, a double reference to both Kushner’s iconic use of that stone angel and the biblical spring of healing waters it is meant to symbolize. Revitalized for our times, when AIDS no longer carries an imminent death sentence, this Angels shimmers with hope, for more love and life than Kushner’s characters could have imagined in 1986. Smit’s Prior delivers his goodbye to Louis, his prodigal lover, with a radiant smile, and as waves of light roll over the finally quiet stage, they seem to carry the dead and the living to a redemptive peace.