Measured purely in hours, there is more theatre directed by Ivo van Hove on in New York City this weekend than by any other artist.
The Dutch-Belgian director's three-and-a-half hour take on Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage is winding down a run at New York Theatre Workshop, while his sprawling, five-hour-plus, Dutch-language production of Angels in America is visiting the Brooklyn Academy of Music for three nights only, closing on Saturday.
The running times total a full work day – plus half an hour of overtime.
You may not have heard of van Hove, but the 58-year-old, Amsterdam-based theatre director has a fan base among the Canadian artistic elite. At the opening of Angels on Thursday night, there was Luminato artistic director Jorn Weisbrodt, sitting with his husband Rufus Wainwright, sizing up the show to see if it were suitable to bring to Toronto.
Soulpepper artistic director Albert Schultz is also a fervent admirer of van Hove's production of The Misanthrope; while Tina Rasmussen, who runs the world stage programming at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre, has seen his six-hour Shakespearean mash-up Roman Tragedies a whopping four times.
"I admire Ivo's work because it is epic, it's messy, it exists within a sprawling landscape, both physically and psychologically, and he always puts his actors and their biggest acting chops at the core of his work," Rasmussen said in an e-mail. "If I had the money, I would do every single Ivo work."
Scenes from a Marriage perfectly illustrates why van Hove's work is popular with both those who admire audacity of interpretation and those who respect dedication to a text – and shows how he has managed to become a regular at avant-garde European festivals such as Avignon, as well as off-Broadway in New York.
For the first half of the show, van Hove and his designer Jan Versweyveld have divided New York Theatre Workshop's square theatre into three intimate, triangular ones – all of which shared the same backstage space, which is partially visible to the audience through windows.
Johan and Marianne, the central characters, are shown at three different moments in their marriage, played by three sets of actors (the three wives – Susannah Flood, Roslyn Ruff and Tina Benko – are particularly impressive). Before intermission, the audience moves three times, rotating through the scenes in no particular order, as if someone hit the shuffle button.
Versweyveld has created an aurally and visually porous space, so that echoes of past love-making and fighting seep into scenes, while an older Johan might catch a glimpse of his younger self through a window.
This is not just some immersive gimmickry: Van Hove's staging has the effect of flattening time in a way that makes Bergman's 1973 screenplay (in an English adaptation by Emily Mann) feel very much of the Internet age despite its somewhat dated gender politics. Every romantic relationship now has a long tail: A Google search of a couple's names might turn up their divorce papers alongside their honeymoon photos, just as the past co-exists alongside the present in van Hove's production.
The multiple casts further highlight the destabilization of identity that comes today from maintaining multiple social-media personae and constantly running into your previous selves on Facebook. And if we aren't sure who we really are, if we contain multitudes, how on Earth are we to know who our spouse is and make a marriage work?
In the second half of the production, the walls all come down –and all three Johans and all three Mariannes face off side-by-side in a thrilling fight that makes you feel as if you are the spectator at a wrestling match. Yet, despite the hysterics and the running around, every line of the script comes across clearly – a feat of acoustic choreography.
It's perhaps counterintuitive to posit that a director who stages productions that last more than three hours might be making theatre that appeals to the Internet mind. But rumours of the death of the attention span have been greatly exaggerated, as anyone who has binged on Netflix can attest – and Scenes from a Marriage, which was a television series before it was a film, feels like the theatrical equivalent of sitting down to a season of House of Cards.
Even longer is van Hove's production of Angels in America, which crams both parts of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer-winning AIDS-era play in five hours with a single intermission.
While Scenes turns a big stage into several smaller, claustrophobic chambers, for Angels, designer Versweyveld leaves the sprawling BAM stage almost completely bare. Eight actors from Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the municipal theatre that van Hove has led since 2001, manage to command it with only subliminal projections in the background and a pile of David Bowie records to give them support.
This is even an Angels without an angel: Instead of the shower of feathers and plaster from above that typically ends part one of the play, here the angelic being is a doctor (Alwin Pulinckx) who simply walks on stage and spins AIDS patient Prior Walter (the electric Eelco Smits) around and around on the ground as Bowie's The Motel blasts: "There is no hell. There is no shame." If you want to see Prior's fevered dreams or Roy Cohn's hallucinations or pill-popping wife Harper's visions, then you'll have to imagine them yourself. Van Hove's Angels, then, is in synch with the guilt-ridden Marxist Louis Ironson's worldview: "There are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America."
The Toneelgroep Amsterdam ensemble demonstrates the benefit of the European repertory theatre model – this group has been performing these characters since 2008 and have a deep intimacy with the parts rarely found on this side of the Atlantic. This allows van Hove to simply stage Kushner's plays like open wounds.
But this Angels is probably more powerful if you don't have to spend the night reading the surtitles that translate the show back into English from Dutch. And, oddly, my only disappointment wasn't that show was so long, but that van Hove streamlined it too much. The epilogue is cut, and although it isn't really missed, but I did feel the absence of a favourite speech – the brutal one in which Harper talks about how change happens. It's an odd omission since there's an obvious Bowie song to go along with it.
There is something quite audacious about bringing a foreign production of Angels in America to Brooklyn, where so much of it is set, even if this version has Kushner's blessing. But van Hove's production is a sign his popularity isn't due simply to audacity, but also to his skilled practice of a brand of stagecraft popular since Shakespeare: actors on an empty stage, performing with your imagination as a scene partner.