Reviewed by Will Stackman
In the illusive tradition of E.T.A.Hoffman, Wim Wenders and Peter Handke's 1987 film, "Der Himmel Uber Berlin," created a poetic and philosophical fantasy merging the angelic and the human, the sensual and the philosophic in divided Berlin. The current joint production by the American Repertory Theatre and Toneelgroep Amsterdam, based on the original screenplay, is a disjointed attempt to bring the same concepts to the contemporary stage. To that end, the production incorporates local NPR personality, Robin Young, from "Here & Now" reading current headlines, and occurs in no specific locale except a nebulous theatrical here. The result is an hundred minute intellectual collage, full of fashionable stage gimmicks but lacking substance. Time for example is indicated by streams of fine sand descending from the flies, continuing an ART tradition of exposing a cast, and probably the audience, to respiratory problems. The show starts and ends with Handke's "Song of Childhood," which begins "When a child was a child," but barely explores the verses' implications.
The hero, for want of a better term, is an angel, Damiel, played by Bernard White, founder of Plymouth in L.A., a theatre space dedicated to the sacred in art. He's obviously into the story and capable of joining aerialist Mam Smith who plays Marion, in their climactic embrace high above the center ring. However, the production takes so long to get passive Damiel to earth and becomes entangled in layers of technical symbolism leaving him curiously irrelevant. His partner in eternity is Mark Rosenthal's enigmatic Cassiel, who has even less to work with, except for not very comprehensible translations of Handke's text. The most accessible character is craggy Steven Payne, playing a former angel adrift in this reality, a corollary to the part Peter Falk took in the original film. But Smith, for better or worse stops the show with Marion's aerial gymnastics, though we never learn why she's quitting the circus, except that it's too lonely up there. And we have to assume that Damiel has wings because she's the only one who wears them in her act, and they seem to have been borrowed from Victoria's secret, along with her thong. Two minor characters who die during the show, the apolplectic owner of the canteen trailer which is the central location played by Toneelgroep's Fred Goessens and a suicide played by Daniel Robert Pecci, presumably from MXAT/ART, do don fuzzy white props but never fly.
The Loeb stage is once again fully open to the walls, which makes Andre Joosten's lighting efforts easier if blatant. He's also credited with the set, which is mostly plastic lawn chairs and a hired food wagon plus the aforementioned sand. Costumes, which have a thrift store look at times are credited to Regine Standfuss, though Smith's flying wear is pure Barnum and Bailey, though she's toured with Cirque D'Soleil. Sound design and music by Andy Moor, an English rocker now working in the Netherlands reverberates in the Loeb and amplification for the cast, presumably using the house system is similarly blurred. In an attempt to create some sort of reality, all the better to deny it perhaps, director Ola Mafaalani et al seem to have purposely emphasized the banal which is certainly modern, but hardly expressive. The extras in the show, coyly referred to in the text, hanging about the canteen include Smith's son Andris Freimanis on his skateboard or "heelies", but don't add much. Nor does Tonellgroep's Frieda Pittoors who's listed in the program as Homer, an immortal poet. She gets to address the audience downstage to little avail.
The musical theatre in America is already becoming clogged with reinterpretations of films and celebrity. It's sadly predictable that the ART's relentless pursuit of the next thing continues to take them towards pretensious multimedia productions. Their next effort is at Zero Arrow, where the Dresden Dolls' Amanda Palmer will appear in "The Onion Cellar", where the incrowd comes to cry. The show is based on a chapter from Gunter Grass' "The Tin Drum."