Angels of Swedenborg: a review

*Published on Nov 1, 2011 in EDGE

Let me lay bare my prejudice for experimental theater, and multicultural, multidisciplinary work. I came by this love and lust honestly as I worked as the executive director of the now 50-year-old LaMaMa Experimental Theater Club for over a decade during the ’80s and ’90s. We produced 60 shows a year — that’s no typo — and I saw them all, albeit sometimes in a state of terrible sleep deprivation as I also had my two children while I was doing this job.

Dancers in Ping Chong’s "Angels of Swedenborg" (Source:Sam Rudy PR)

I will tell you about the two kids because I dragged them, towed them, hauled them with me from the time they were days old until now in their mid 20s. And they love it, to differing degrees. I think experimental theater is perfect for small children who really have no sense of a linear story line or why it is unsettling for a character to switch from English to French and then to a made-up language. In fact, as I see it, experimental theater or new work, call it what you will, is actually the perfect reflection of what it must feel like to a small child to attempt to make sense of the world.

With all those prejudices out in the transparent present tense I was transported and transformed by Ping Chong’s 1988 “Angels of Swedenborg”, recreated so lovingly at LaMaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre. I hauled my four-year old goddaughter with me, and fed her before we went to the matinee: a must for experimental work. I told her she could not talk during the show (many adults might take good note of this).

I told her that the show was like being in someone else’s dreams and that sometimes it might be loud, or different, or even scary, but at the end the lights would come up, as there is no grand curtain for these shows. Most of the time we would go backstage and everyone would be restored to their regular selves.

So the lights dimmed and an LED crawl told about the Swedish philosopher and scientist Emanuel Swedenborg. We saw a blond man in a laboratory and we also saw what looked like a large boxing ring, fenced in on three sides with a white picket fence holding in a pen of large, snowy feathers.

Opera music filled the theater, wrapped around my ears and cuddled under my arms. It filled me so full with visions and sound that I relaxed into my seat and watched, and breathed. A puckish, brown, furry creature began to frolic in the feathers. An unknown script like Aramaic or mirror writing filled the screen, a moon appeared, more creatures cuddled and coddled Swedenborg in his laboratory where he smoked and scribbled and the LED screen told about places like Kinshasa or the Hotel Raffles or Paris.

We learned from the program that Swedenborg wrote about the existence of angels and devils and believed that “devils, like angels, are not a species apart but derive from the human race. After death some individuals choose, hell some heaven.” Since we were watching this on Halloween weekend the chase between good and evil, light and dark and angels and devils seemed to abound. Outside the streets of the East Village echoed the notions explored in the feather-covered stage and the magic went on and on.

The company that enacted the dance between good and evil are all members of LaMaMa’s resident company, The Great Jones Company, a group who until the death of the founder and artistic director Ellen Stewart in January, performed mostly in works directed by her. But the shows must go on, and a mantle was passed to the extremely talented, multifaceted artist Ping Chong to put the Great Jones Company to best use.

Ping Chong was an early adapter of technologies on all levels to create other theater worlds. He is an internationally known director, choreographer, filmmaker and a maverick in using all these skills melded together to form one cohesive piece. Chong has created over 40 different pieces in the 39 years he has been working and “Angles of Swedenborg” is not to be missed, as it is a seamless synthesis of all the elements.

Yes, there are beautifully danced moments of nearly a dozen angels swimming and whirling in the feathery firmament. But then there is a large questioning overlord, a god perhaps, who asks quirky questions in French and English in a synthesizer voice. And there is an angel banished, and a moment when one of his friends wants to save him; we all know that feeling. And through it all the music, the electronic sounds build and consume.

My small friend slept soundly on my lap for a portion of the piece and I rested on her hot curly head, taking in her dreams, the plays’ reveries and wonderment, and that so much can be wrought from evenings or afternoons spent wrapped in another’s visions.

The play ended and the applause rallied sleepers and allowed us to see the thespians unmasked and beaming. We did go backstage to thank and greet, and then we headed out into what passes for reality. All of us who sat and dreamed in the theater together were richer for the time spent inside another’s philosophies and dreams.

“Angels of Swedenborg” runs through November 13 at the Ellen Stewart Theatre at LaMaMa, 66 East 4th St. For info or tickets call 212-475-7710 or visit http://lamama.org/ellen-stewart-theatre/angels-of-swedenborg/

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