"Talking With Angels," a solo theater performance based on the historical Hungarian document by Gitta Mallasz
Starring Shelley Mitchell
Directed by Robin Fontaine
CVS Theatre on Suffolk Street through May 19 (closed)
Reviewed by Melinda Given Guttmann
Do you believe in Angels? Do you remember your first imago of an angel? All cultures have images of angels, from the stern male angels of the old Testiment to the feminine winged angels of the Hindus to the elaborate heirarchies of Christian angel choirs during the Medieval ages. There are angels in the Koran; in Buddhist texts; and there are innumberable angels in the paintings and literary Canons of both East and West. Some are invisible and sacred; Swendenbergian light-beings who whispered to him or sang songs in his ear; the rebellious angels, the shadow of Lucifer, or the rebel naked angels of Burroughs and Ginsburg, flying through the unchartered surreal. Others are sterotyped, mundane and commercial-- images sentimentalized on crude valentines and sentimental, romantisized popular songs about sex. Some of you have seen angels, as the enormous response to Sophie Burnham's book on angels attested; others of you believe that you are protected by guardian angels. The lore is endless and varied.
If you are fortunate, you have seen an actress of magestic angelic artistry in a theatre piece about talking with angels at the CVS on Suffolk street. Shelley Mitchell, a sublime actress-- radiant, beautiful, soulful--performed a tour de force adaptation of an important human document heroically recorded by Gitta Mallasz during the Hungarian Holocaust in 1943-44. Gitta, who died in 1992, recorded 88 extraordinary dialogues which she kept a secret for nearly forty years. The first edition was published to acclaim in 1976 in France. Christian of Austrian ancestry, Gitta transcribed the provocative dialogues which took place among herself and three Jewish friends, Hanna, Lili, and Joseph, all of whom were artists and non-religious. They met on Friday afternoons in a small Hungarian cottage outside Budapest and were amazingly convinced that each one was visited through the medium of Hannah's voice with a personal Angelic teacher; each a messanger from the One, the Divine called "U." Each of the friends is given a specific task in order to transform himself; in order to represent the Divine in transforming the world--that it will be passed on. This work--of urgent imprtantace to us now after 9/11--finds more power as a theatre work than as a book.
Shelley Mitchell plays all eight roles--a intricate piece chamber music: She produces strong, vocal music and strong physical gestures; many of which were taken from Italian Renaissance paintings Ms. Mitchell saw when she lived in Italy for ten years.
They also are the basic ballet positions; and straight-backed and dignified fencing positions. She eludes all stereotypes with magestic, wise, magnetic angels and humans going deeper into themselves to touch divine joy and renewal. The only specifically drawn character is that of Gitta; as a very precise, naturalistic figure in old age, lecturing on the events of forty years ago. It is no wonder that Ms. Mitchell won the award for the best play in 2001 in San Francisco.
Her angels are rooted into the earth, like the kneeling Angel of Asscention by Master Flemalle; or a Buddhist bottisatva without wings, coming back into earthly form, transmitting the divine gift of new consciousness, in calm, stern, compassionate, voices, sometimes passionate, sometimes detached, from the emptiness of a Bhuddist bottitsava, returning to earth to lift the veil of ignorance which causes suffering until all are englightened. They are not "airy-fairy", as Gitta states. In Jewish mysticism, angels are not only imaged as eternal and static, but constantly being creative from the divine to us, and by us. The Jewish mystical definition of a Mitzvah, or blessing, or holy deed, is that one who performs such an act has created an angel. Shelley Mitchell creates an angel each night she performs.
The metaphysical impact of this performance so forceful, that even the most skeptical members of the audience, are almost impelled to meditate on whatever 'Angelic' desire guides each heart towards towards creating an earthly paradise, and to trust that ineffable Source compeling humans towards freedom from suffering, and towards creating an estatic New Consciousness.
Ms. Mitchell referred me to a biography of Eleanora Duse on the Mystic in the Theatre, when I asked her how she created her interior angel-space, which is a risky challange. Duse apparently believed the sublimity of the theatre was due to its origin in religion. She wanted to destroy her "ego". And that "ego" is synonymous with "devil," so one who struggles all night with the dark angel becomes a great saint. Her presence as an actor has been described as the root definition of all of Angels: as a messanger of God. Ms. Mitchell is also an unusual kind of holy messenger.
Since the play concentrates on sending Light, I asked her how she perceived and transmitted the Light to audience. Ms. Mitchell answered, " Truth in the moment is magnetic; as an actor there are always things happening inside yourself that are threating the picture of yourself--for instance if you are on stage and a cell phone goes off--it is the ultimate insult--and yet if I am true to myelf and the audience--and embrace the fact that it went off inside myself--then the audience understands that I have admitted the truth. That the abberation has happened--and it makes me angry--sublte example of mood of audience--when their is laughter I won that. I don't run away from the gifts when they come--it changes my performance every night--the energy between me and the outside world is flowing and very alive." Ms. Mitchell refers to her art as journeying; and we journey with her under her sometimes tender, sometimes stern guidance. It is a journey worth taking. And taking again.
The riviting journey of the play takes us from the secretive life of a group of friends, to Gitta's heroics in saving Jewish women by using the German SS as protectors agains the Hungarian Nazis by hiding around 100 Jewish women as workers in a sewing factory. The three Jews are eventually murdered by the Nazis, but their response to the death camps and the journey there are unexpected and deeply moving.
If this review seems intense and extreme, I have personal reasons for taking this work so seriously. First of all, my Jewish-Buddhist meditation teacher, Diane Shainberg, who died this year, gave me Gitta's book several years ago. It burned a hole in my heart, and I was determined to make this my next performance piece; I was shocked that someone else had done this before me. And grateful. Secondly, often, in deep meditative state, I find myself suddenly knowing my true self as "angelic," enlightened in a formless, blissful, expanded consciousness, a state of pure peace, eternal, infinite, divine love. And I know that we are all inter-connected, divine, and perfect; that suffering and death are illusions; that fear, and the mind-forged manacles of culture prevent us from knowing our true nature. [MMG]
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