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Wings of Desire: American Repertory Theatre Adapts Classic Holocaust Film for Stage

Lead actors Bernard White and Mam Smith in Wings of Desire. Photo Courtesy of American Repertory Theatre
Lead actors Bernard White and Mam Smith in “Wings of Desire.” Photo Courtesy of American Repertory Theatre

We must fall to desire to know what no angel knows. This is the lesson learned by the angel Damiel, the protagonist of the American Repertory Theatre’s stage adaptation of German filmmaker Wim Wender’s 1987 classic “Wings of Desire (Der Himmel uber Berlin).”

The stage adaptation is co-authored by A.R.T.’s artistic director Gideon Lester in association with Dirkje Houtman of the Netherlands’ Toneelgroep Amsterdam. The play opens with the sound of softly falling sand and a brief flash of light that exposes the main character, played enthusiastically by Bernard White, before he is again swallowed by a darkness which foreshadows the story’s climax. The story is a classic one: angel falls in love with a mortal and gives up heaven to lie with her, knowing that he will now ultimately also die with her. This echoes an ancient Rabbinical text chronicling the Nephilim, angels who did not choose sides in Satan’s war against God, choosing instead to fall to earth and marry human women.More recently, popular movies such as “The Prophecy” and “City of Angels,” as well as television series such as The X-Files have updated the tale for modern viewers. However, these versions, like this stage adaptation, owe their existence and traction to Wender’s movie.The movie is very much a holocaust story; however, this aspect is significantly minimized in A.R.T.’s attempt to connect the story with current events. It’s lovely to see as well as hear National Public Radio’s Robin Young read snippets from her NPR show “Here and Now,” but this element-combined with an opening monologue referencing the September 11 WTC attacks-distracts and overshadows some of the original poignancy of the movie. The half-update doesn’t quite connect modern times with the time of the holocaust, leaving the play feeling somewhat episodic, surrealistic, and hard to follow in places. It may take repeat viewing to piece it all together.One update which succeeds beautifully is the adaptation’s incorporation of the Homer character, played with subtle grace and Shakespearian power by Dutch actress Frieda Pittoors. The immortal poet still acts as humanity’s historical conscience, but feels more central to the action in this version, giving Homer’s narration a more personal feeling than in the original.This review would be incomplete with a mention of the beautiful and talented Mam Smith, who plays Damiel’s love interest, Marion, a retiring trapeze artist. A choreographer, dancer, and gymnast, it’s easy to see how an angel might well fall in love with Smith’s Marion. Her storyline opens with her forced retirement from the circus. In sadly humorous scenes she circles in the air with angel wings that resemble in her words, “a [BLEEPING] chicken,” then attempts to simultaneously juggle and pose like Vanna White. Marion asks the audience (and unknowingly the hovering angel) “What do you do when time itself is the disease?” She longs to be understood completely and to be truly unified with another being. When Damiel realizes that he shares this desire, his fate is sealed. Where before he could only observe human feeling and responses, once fallen he revels in the sensory assault of human life, and he has no fear of death. Along the way, Damiel continues to talk to his companion, Cassiel, although he can no longer see him. In many ways, Damiel’s story serves as a farewell journal to his friend. Damiel also realizes that he’s not the first of his kind to make such a decision when he runs across another fallen angel, played with precise comic timing to a lot of guffaws by Stephen Payne, who provides him guidance. A talented ensemble rounds out the cast; the music played and sung by Jesse Lenat and Hadewych Minis lends the play a troubled David Lynch-esque mood. While it’s not Nick Cave, it is a gorgeous score.

“Wings of Desire” is playing through December 17, 2006 at the Loeb Drama Center on Brattle Street in Harvard Square.

BUY TICKETS ONLINE at www.amrep.org or call 617-547-8300.