Smallpox Hospital, on Roosevelt Island, first opened its doors and turned down its hundred beds a century and a half ago. It ministered to paying patients and charity cases alike. Designed by architect James Renwick Jr. and built by inmates from the island’s prison, the hospital attempted to contain contagion inside crenellated turrets and gray granite. Once imposing and fanciful, a vest-pocket castle presiding over an unhealthy stretch of the East River, it has since fallen to ruin. A chain-link fence encloses it and wooden struts prop up its ivy-infested walls. If New York is ever still or somber enough to achieve the gothic, it achieves it here. In the hospital’s shadow, director Deborah Warner begins her bittersweet performance installation The Angel Project.
A solemn scavenger hunt, a placid Happening, it plays out amid various locations on Roosevelt Island and in Manhattan. As participants are meant to experience the piece singly, each arrives on the grounds at appointed five-minute intervals and receives a two-ride MetroCard and a slender guidebook. Then a car pulls onto the grass and conveys him or her to the first location.
In the Duino Elegies, Rainer Maria Rilke writes, “Every angel is terrifying.” But we’re a long way from Rilke. With angels so cherubically replete on greeting cards, coffee mugs, and Barnes & Noble journals, the title of the work might provoke unease. Yet Warner neatly sidesteps cliché. Much of her project proves rougher and stranger than anticipated. Wandering through an abandoned suite of offices, pulling at a drawer that creakily discloses a lone prayer card and several film strips, produces a mixture of fear and exhilaration—hardly Hallmark territory.
Soon, whether in a deserted apartment or on a crowded subway platform, questions arise about what is intended and what is accidental. Is the man mending a fishing net a member of the cast? Probably. What about the woman, arms full of grocery bags, vigorously spitting? Unlikely. Yet both bleed together until life can’t positively be separated from art, the project from its setting. The constellation of blankets in Bryant Park, viewed from the 27th floor of a Sixth Avenue building, appears just as extraordinary as the room full of white down and gym lockers. When was the last time a hot dog vendor took on an air of mystery?
Suffusing midtown—midtown!—with enchantment and estrangement is a dandy trick. Recently, we’ve had to become all too aware of our city, of its defenselessness and fragility, of its vulnerability to harm. An abrupt disillusionment has been affected. But walking from site to site, guidebook clutched tightly, brushing past other trekkers also tightly clutching their guidebooks, I felt by turns scared and shy and more than a little silly—but also hopeful. Hopeful that, even in a fallen city, climbing the stairs of a tenement building or ascending the elevator of a skyscraper might result in the marvelous, a marvel that could be secretly shared.
Three hours after I set out alone, I found myself in a room filled with copies of the Bible, the Koran, Paradise Lost, and several other participants who seemed equally dazed. I picked up a volume of Milton, took it to a chair by the window, and decided to play the game of riffling through the pages and seeing what line I landed on. The first time I discovered I had picked out some notes to Book III, but the second time this, I swear, is where my finger rested: “On evil days though fallen, and evil tongues;/In darkness, and with dangers compassed round,/And solitude; yet, not alone.” And, strange to say, as I read and looked around me, I realized I’d rarely felt more comforted.
“In darkness, and with dangers compassed round” isn’t a bad descriptive for the hero of Macbeth, either. Also, in the CTH production under the direction of Alfred Preisser, the unfortunate Thane of Glamis is hardly alone. Like a profane pop idol, he can rarely cross from one end of the environmental set to the other without being beset by a chorus of shrieking, gyrating teenage girls. This witches’ coven—dressed in wild rags, fearsome body paint, and eminently handy knee pads—play athletic orishas to Macbeth’s tribal lord in this African-themed production. The sight of several 13-year-olds thrusting their pelvises with such abandon may give rise to an attack of prudishness. But such killjoy puritanism soon succumbs to the rhythm of the live drumming and the ardor of the dance.
Sadly, Ty Jones’s jittery Macbeth doesn’t gain much delight from his fearsome fan club. He’s far too occupied seeing daggers, threatening vengeance, and generally behaving as though he’s consumed a whole pack of No-Doz. April Yvette Thompson fares rather better as his no-nonsense queen. She seems like the sort of woman who could cheerfully arrange a bit of slaughter and then return to sorting her linens. And while he doesn’t lend much to the verse, Lawrence Winslow—his arms a wonder of raised tattoos and veiny biceps—proves an imposing Macduff. When he sparks his double-bladed ax along the concrete, he dares you not to feel a frisson. But the trio of witches (De’Adre Aziza, Quonta Beasley, and Maechi Aharanwa) and their youthful accomplices easily steal the show. When they leap onto the stage in a fit of feminine brio, licking their lips, undulating their hips, and slapping their chests, foul is indeed fair.