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First Nighter: Ivo van Hove's Strong Take on 'Angels in America'

Since Tony Kushner could be considered to know best, why not quote what he says he admired after seeing Ivo van Hove's revival of the playwright's Pulitzer Prize-winning, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music: "It had this feeling of being stripped to its absolute bare bones."
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Since Tony Kushner could be considered to know best, why not quote what he says he admired after seeing Ivo van Hove's revival of the playwright's Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music: "It had this feeling of being stripped to its absolute bare bones."

I particularly choose Kushner's remark because it jibes neatly with my primary reason for liking what van Hove and his designer Jan Versweyveld have done for Toneelgroep Amsterdam with the best American play of the '90s.

I can't say I expected to have anything anywhere close to that reaction. Over the years and with the sole exception of van Hove's take on Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, I have become more and more allergic to his deconstruction techniques. As a result of the damage he'd done to Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage when I saw it at New York Theater Workshop less than a month ago, I was prepared to throw my hands up at the prospect of attending whatever else he wrestled to the ground.

Glad I didn't, because in distilling the two-part, seven-hour Angels in America ("Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika") to five hours with a single intermission), he exorcised his deconstruction demon almost entirely.

Instead, he thrust those bare bones directly at the audience with only a cart on stage featuring a turntable (lots of David Bowie on it) and projections on two adjacent upstage walls. The aim of the projections only intermittently was to offer a realistic backdrop; at other times they were intended to underline a mood, often of desolation.

Accordingly, van Hove achieved a bas-relief result that may be the most concentrated Angels in America yet. (I admit I've only seen six since the 1993 bow.) For those who don't know what goes on, Kushner dreamed up several interlocking stories taking place in 1985-86, when the AIDS epidemic had established itself as a mysterious and frightening epidemic. ("Dreamed up" seems appropriate in light of the drama's unceasing hallucinatory tone and preoccupation.)

Although not introduced in this order, the characters include AIDS victim Prior Walter (Eelco Smits) of a patrician family who's abandoned by lover Louis Ironson (Fredja van Huet), Harper Pitt (Helene Devos) and husband Joe (Marwan Kenzari), a law associate of Roy Cohn (Hans Kesting).

Also figuring in as the stories begin to intertwine nearly to the point of intriguing asphyxiation are Joe's mother Hannah (Marieke Heebink, also tripling as Ethel Rosenberg and an Orthodox rabbi), nurse Belize (Roeland Fernhout) and an angel (Alwin Pulinckx), representing the many angels frequently discussed throughout the text on the seeming assumption that angels exist absolutely.

Or are they merely figments of the searching imagination? That question is only one of many Kushner raises without the slightest thought to supply answers. The list he's set out to tick off isn't even partially covered by the mention of: early AIDS research and the unfair distribution of the first drugs, the tribulations of homosexuality, people selfishly quitting challenged relationships (Louis leaves Prior, Joe leaves Harper), people experiencing visions (Prior and Harper show up in each other's dreams, Cohn greets Ethel Rosenberg), the cruelty of politics, the national fear of Communism during the McCarthy era and its lingering effects, the promise and disappointment of America, forgiveness and redemption.

In domestic plays of the last several decades, nothing rivals Kushner's for complexity, keen intellectual pursuit and humanity--indeed, add man's humanity and inhumanity to man to the above run-down. The ways the playwright hits on to vivify them are startling, none perhaps more delectable and inflammatory than his bringing Ethel Rosenberg to the hospital bedside of the man greatly responsible for her execution in the electric chair. At one point he refers to her as "Reddy Kilowatt."

If there's a single Angels in America element that van Hove has enhanced, it's his deployment of Cohn, whom the caustic yet kind-hearted Belize characterizes as embodying what America has become. Kushner presents Cohn as powerfully hard-hitting and keeps him going like that through the AIDS diagnosis he refuses to acknowledge.

Slowly and steadily, though, Cohn declines until he's stumbling across the stage, dragging an IV pole behind him. Van Hove won't let him go but keeps him visible, even after his demise as a symbol of the national deterioration Belize expresses.

And Kesting does a superb job of portraying Cohn's hideous and, shocking to say, sympathetic arc. His achievements are equaled by the entire cast, all of them imbued with the passion, terror and humor Kushner demands. Ticket buyers will marvel at their stamina alone.

I admit that working Cohn in the manner that van Hove does suggests there's some deconstructing going on. Okay, there is, and the director indulges his penchant elsewhere, too. Many times during the five hours, he has characters assume the fetal position on the stage floor. From time to time, the bent bodies remain in place during other scenes. The look prompts thoughts of both birth and death, surely a Kushner subtext that the subtext-loving van Hove wants to emphasize.

Although I consider Angels in America a magnificent accomplishment, I've never said it's perfect. It's always struck me as likely benefitting from a dramaturg's -- or a director's -- red pencil. I'd say its seven hours wouldn't suffer from being trimmed to five.

But they have to be the right five, and van Hove's aren't precisely that. Some of the material he's clipped isn't a dreadful loss, but to my way of thinking other sequences or parts of sequences are missed.

Take the "Millennium Approaches" ending, when the Angel arrives to goad Prior, declaring him a prophet -- or so Prior hallucinates. The appearance is usually quite a coup de theatre, and thrillingly so. Van Hove wants none of that, although the capable Versweyveld is clearly up to it. Van Hove's angel is a male nurse. On paper, this makes perfect sense. Kushner's nurses are unmitigated angeiic healers. And yet...

The director-conceiver also takes liberties with "Perestroika." I recall a speech the conflicted and neurotic-to-the-brink-of-psychotic Harper has towards the act's end in which she's flying cross-country. If I have it right, the speech is a heart-stopper. This Harper may have delivered part of it, but not, if I'm correct, the entire monologue.

More disturbing to me is that van Hove ends the play with a less promising development than Kushner supplies. Kushner has Prior on the mend and sitting by Central Park's Bethesda Fountain, i. e., beneath another of the angels Kushner sees, literally or figuratively, balancing on humanity's shoulders.

Van Hove's final tableau is less positive, which I took to be an unwelcome skewing of Kushner's plan. Nevertheless, van Hove does spend most of his five hours being a guiding angel on Kushner's broad shoulders.

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