The Angel Project(Photo © Stephanie Berger)
The Angel Project
(Photo © Stephanie Berger)
In Deborah Warner's production of The Angel Project in New York, presented by the Lincoln Center Festival, you are the main character, the actor who plays the character, and the understudy all in one. But that descriptions is, perhaps, deceptive: New York City itself is the real star of this show.

Essentially a walking/subway/golf cart tour through the city, the project takes the participant from location to location, where rooms and whole floors of buildings have been prepared by the director and installation designer Tom Pye for the viewer's experience. Tickets are purchased for tour start times, which are staggered at half-hour intervals. While groups of participants arrive at the initial assembly location at the appointed time, participants are led through the first stages of the tour individually. Subsequently, we are instructed to move from location to location according to the directions in the guide book, unaccompanied by staff and other participants.

True, viewers' timings may occasionally overlap and one may deliberately slow down to wait for a friend, but this defeats the purpose. The show is an exercise in solitude and meditative observation. Actors inhabit a few of the chosen spaces but they are silent and, usually, almost motionless. More of the spaces are empty of people than occupied, but they are filled with interesting images and views of the city that are not only dazzling and rare but voyeuristically thrilling. One architecturally hum-drum building we visit is world famous due to its location and the role it plays in the city's rituals but, despite its star status, it has floors of unrented, crumbling rooms husbanding its priceless views. To stand in this iconic spot, looking out from a seemingly forgotten interior, is shocking. The viewer realizes that a location that feels infernal to the occupant might look quite dazzling on television.

The Inferno, of course, is a subject not far from any angel's mind. From the project's title to the quotation from Paradise Lost contained in the guidebook, the themes of the show are established early on. These are reinforced at times subtly, and at times less so. In one particular spot, Milton's poem spews endlessly from a silent fax machine, a not wholly original image that is nonetheless haunting. Religious icons, books, and the personal effects of adults and children are scattered throughout the project, often in cabinets and drawers that the viewer is intended to open and explore. But the presence of feathers, wings, and angels in most of the spaces, while interesting initially, becomes a bit tiresome -- perhaps because angels have been overworked in popular culture recently.

Still, the show succeeds in creating a solemn, almost ghost-like feeling in the participant, who feels himself to be moving unseen between and within locations, seeing the world from outside or from a privileged position within it. The solitude of the tour -- and the fact that one enters spaces to which one could not normally obtain admission -- enhances the feeling of other-worldly angelic progress through the city.

Among the more provocative elements of the show are slightly open windows on high floors; perhaps these allude to suicide leaps as a reason for the emptiness of some of the spaces, several of which are abandoned offices. If one looks hard, one finds in an abandoned desk a legal document from a famous patricide-matricide murder case of the last several years. While intriguing, this raises questions that are not fully explored thematically in the rest of the work. The children's effects may relate to that story or may not, Paradise Lost becoming a heavyweight metaphor for child abuse. Warner seems to want us to construct a narrative, and this is at once fascinating and frustrating; a real abandoned office might contain more compelling personal articles than this artificial one.

The Angel Project(Photo © Stephanie Berger)
The Angel Project
(Photo © Stephanie Berger)
Additionally, the repeated use of office furniture and locations starts to feel less like an artistic choice and more one of fiscal and logistical necessity. But these are minor quibbles. Overall, this is a theatrical experience so unique that it could easily qualify as a once-in-a-lifetime event. Warner's intrepid experimentation as a director is commendable, and The Angel Project brings up many questions about the nature of theater and performance.

Some of those questions don't seem to have adequate answers: How does this show differ from a series of installation art pieces? More to the point, how does it differ from touring New York with an out-of-town friend who loves galleries? There is something odd in contriving to present New York's majestic vistas and chaotic street life -- great theater in its own right -- as a structured experience like any packaged tour. New York always wins that battle in The Angel Project, but that's the point. And Warner is a good sport, willing to give herself over to a place that is bigger than all of us, just as we do when we participate in her project.

A caveat: The show involves a certain amount of stair-climbing and a few dark passageways that are not easily navigated, so it is not for the infirm. Also, hot days will make the experience more infernal, less paradisical.