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
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 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?)
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.