Even angels get the blues. Damiel, a forlorn guardian spirit, wants to end his eternal hovering among mortals and exchange infinity for the here and now. But breaking through walls, both mystical and theatrical, has its problems as well as rewards in this lyrical, fanciful and problematic adaptation of Wim Wenders’ meditative, metaphysical film “Wings of Desire.” The production will have clear appeal to the same aud as the arthouse classic.
Co-produced by A.R.T. and Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the play makes its American preem after bowing in Europe earlier this fall. The adventuresome style and sensibilities of these two collaborating companies are well suited to an elliptical work that floats on a thematic cloud more than it is grounded by narrative.
But in trying to find a theatrical equivalent to the distinctive cinematic tone poem (co-scripted by Austrian novelist and playwright Peter Handke), the new creative team wanders as it wonders. Though the ideas are (mostly) well articulated and exquisitely expressed visually, there is a still a chill in the air that keeps empathy at bay, not only among the detached angels but the mortals living in not-so-splendid isolation.
The show’s outline is very simple: Damiel (Bernard White) tells his fellow angel Cassiel (Mark Rosenthal) that he longs not just to observe human history but to be part of it himself. Amid their spiritual duties of chronicling the mess and the mundane of mortal life, Damiel falls in love with beautiful aerialist Marion (Mam Smith), who longs for escape from her earthly despair. He crosses over to the other side, where he eventually unites with his soulmate.
But the power of both the film and the stage adaptation (by A.R.T. a.d. Gideon Lester and Dirkje Houtman) comes in the evocative nature of the telling, here including music, sound effects and design. Andre Joosten’s set and lights and Andy Moor’s layered sound greatly define the work’s dreamscape, which can be both bold and boring.
Taking the material from film to stage means several adjustments, some of which work well, others less so. Instead of the 1987 film’s setting of Berlin just before the Wall came down, helmer Ola Mafaalani gives the production a heightened awareness of the time (the present) and place (the Loeb Theater in Cambridge). Local newscaster Robin Young interrupts the play onstage with the day’s news; Beantown references abound; actors are casually self-aware of theatrical boundary-breaking conventions, echoing the film’s sometimes improvisational style.
But translating other aspects of the film to the stage proves more difficult. Here, the character of the storyteller, Homer (Frieda Pittoors), is a middle-aged woman who is more vague than compelling. The play also doesn’t quite find a satisfying equivalent for the film’s Peter Falk, who played himself as an actor undertaking a role in a German film — though Steven Payne has a grand time trying to approximate Falk’s surprising function. Damiel’s sudden discovery of a colorful world when he becomes mortal in the film also misses here.
But other stage moments are wonderful, such as the exquisite passage in which Damiel steps through a falling stream of power to begin his mortal life, or his discovery of earthbound delights. But too often other theatrical conceits go on well past their point and the audience’s patience. Even the aerialist’s routine becomes a tad too long. The climactic pas de deux, however, when Damiel enters his own episode of “The Real World” gets it just right, creating a tender pairing that finally earns the play its wings.