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'Wings of Desire'
The ART's production of "Wings of Desire," starring Bernard White and Mam Smith, is based on a German film by Wim Wenders. (The Boston Globe)
THEATER

The angel & the aerialist

Citing Wim and whimsy, ART rises to the challenge of presenting a stage adaptation of 'Wings of Desire'

CAMBRIDGE -- "The funny thing about 'Wings of Desire,' " Gideon Lester says, "is that when you reduce it to its basics, it sounds silly. An angel falls in love with a trapeze artist. It sounds like a children's story."

Lester, associate director of the American Repertory Theatre , knows the 1987 German film well. In fact, he helped adapt "Wings of Desire " into the world-premiere stage production that begins previews at the ART on Saturday.

Directed by Wim Wenders , the film tells the story of two angels who look down on Berlin, watching over people as they listen in to their conversations and thoughts. Among those inhabitants is a beautiful aerialist. One of the angels, Damiel , falls in love with her. He gives up his wings and accepts mortality to be with her.

Lester adapted the story with the play's director, Ola Mafaalani , and playwright/director/performer Ko van den Bosch . The production, which incorporates live music, is a collaboration with the Dutch company Toneelgroep Amsterdam , which mounted performances of "Wings" in Holland and Belgium earlier this fall.

What helps make Wenders's film so distinctive -- and it quickly attained cult status -- is the way it grounds the mystical and exalts the mundane. "Wings" also powerfully evokes Berlin. More specifically, it captures a special moment in the city's history, Berlin's divided state about to end.

The elements of the story thus present daunting challenges to stagecraft. Angels and trapezes in a theater? That can be dealt with, as Tony Kushner or Peter Brook can attest. But what about re-creating Cold War Germany on a post-9/11 America stage?

"Because of globalization, the location of the play doesn't matter anymore," says Mafaalani, who first proposed adapting "Wings" two years ago. The ART had long pursued the Syrian-born director, whose acclaimed productions (particularly of Shakespeare) have earned her a stellar reputation in Europe.

Sitting recently in the office of ART director Robert Woodruff, Mafaalani is an intense, vibrant woman. She shows no signs of jet lag, despite having arrived from Europe just the day before.

Wenders, Mafaalani says, "used the Berlin Wall, yes, but what he showed was that the angels could cross the wall. He showed that people on both sides thought the same things: 'Does my husband love me?' 'What about my job?' The daily questions all people think about, the universal questions. And that's true here ."

The stage version emphasizes this universal quality of the story, giving up Berlin for an unspecified setting. It also discards the late-Cold War era the film so memorably captures.

"The movie isn't just about a unique place, but also a unique time," Lester says. "It's a kind of time machine now. So what do you do with that function of recording history today? The great act of translation Ola and all of us had to grapple with is, 'What is the equivalent of Berlin today? How do we make the production as present as it possibly can be?' "

To place "Wings" in the present tense, a new role has been introduced, a newscaster who reads bulletins from that day's news. WBUR's Robin Young plays the part at the ART.

"She makes the production as present as it possibly can be," says Lester.

Mafaalani recalls seeing "Wings" for the first time almost 20 years ago. "At first, I found it boring, but it came to affect all my work," she says.

"The influence was really unconscious. When I became a director, I cast angels in all my plays. The text wouldn't call for them. Producers would say, 'No, it costs more money.' But I would put them in whatever production I was directing. I never knew why exactly, until the actress I cast as one in 'Romeo and Juliet' kept asking me about the character, for hours and hours, and then it hit me why I always cast angels. It was 'Wings of Desire.' "

Angels have a long history in art, of course, from Renaissance putti and Milton's "Paradise Lost" to Rilke's "Duino Elegies" and "It's a Wonderful Life."

Mafaalani sees angels as being innately theatrical . "I find the function of theater itself is to see things from another perspective in life," she says. "This is what angels do. They convey that message: Try to see differently."

She pauses. "Above all, an angel makes the stage and the auditorium one space. That's what one wants in theater: to cross the fourth wall."

Crossing walls would seem to pose little problem for Bernard White. The actor, who plays Damiel, is an energetic, loose-limbed man who looks a decade or more younger than his age (47). He's had several professional brushes with both angels and "Wings." For one thing, he played Cassiel , the other angel, in the European performances.

White has done guest shots on the television series "Touched by an Angel" (though not playing an angel) and had a small role in the Hollywood remake of "Wings," "City of Angels" (1998), which starred Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan . He also became friendly with Wenders, acting in the director's 2004 film "Land of Plenty."

"I've been keeping a journal [about the production] and sending him entries," White says. "I'm not sure what he thinks. He almost came to the premiere in Amsterdam. I'm still trying to get him to come see it here."

White sees playing an angel as a rare theatrical opportunity. "It's an invitation to be a little mad," he says. "Everything becomes fascinating. It's like a child's perception.

"I think it was [the psychologist] Abraham Maslow who talked about 'pure listening.' Playing an angel is an opportunity to be a pure listener, to listen to others' words totally. It's a great spiritual practice playing an angel. You're in a room having all these people staring at you. That's always true for an actor, of course, but there's this wonderful difference if you're an actor playing an angel. The way Ola's staged it, we get to stare back. I fought her on that for a long time -- that's not what actors are trained to do, not at all! It ran counter to all my theatrical instincts, all my experience. But now I love it."

Mafaalani says that adapting a film, while exciting in the opportunities it offers, has major disadvantages.

"You need to bring the fantasy onstage, and there you'd love to have camera tricks! So it took me a year to come up with a stage set that could work at representing the fantasy.

"Also, there have been, what, thousands and thousands of productions of 'Othello,' of 'Romeo and Juliet.' All are different, and even then I have seen only a few. The audience has seen only a few also. With 'Wings of Desire,' if they've seen the film, it's just that one vision of the work they've seen. That's the image, the image, they have in their heads. Overcoming that is very hard."

Mafaalani, who's directed a stage adaptation of "A Clockwork Orange " in the Netherlands, said that there's another film she'd like to adapt, Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs, " and she tried to secure permission to stage it.

"They told me Quentin doesn't give the rights to any of his works to any other directors to adapt," Mafaalani says. "Perhaps when he gets older, I'll give him a call."

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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