Material man in paradise lost: ‘Swedenborg’ questions soul

Amid much buzz on campus, Ping Chong’s company took to the stage at the ’62 Center on Friday and Saturday nights to perform their work Angels of Swedenborg, a recreation of the ground-breaking work first written and directed by Ping Chong 25 years ago. Surreal, beautiful and largely wordless, this piece explored the conflict in every man between the material and the immaterial in a way that both entranced viewers and left them scratching their heads. 

The piece, which translated more as a work of art than a theatrical production, broke from the typical conventions of theater from the moment the audience entered the ’62 Center. Rather than offering the details of acts, movements or scenes, the program instead detailed the historical background of the main character Swedenborg and detailed, to some extent, the intentions of internationally renowned creator Ping Chong. The historic Swedenborg on whom the work was based was a Swedish scientist and philosopher living in the 1700s who wrote more than 30 volumes on his “visits” to heaven and hell, extensively detailing the hierarchy of angels and devils. Like the modernized Swedenborg in the play, he constantly sought “the seat of the soul” within the human body and was tortured by his inability “to find something immaterial in the material,” as Ping Chong phrased it.

This conflict was highlighted from the beginning of the performance – in perhaps the only true monologue of the play – when Swedenborg stood alone in shadows at the center of the stage, reciting his name and asking metaphysical questions in a voice that was echoed throughout the theater in foreign languages. Then, as if breaking out of a trance, he abruptly switched tack, listing his possessions from his car to his Wii and iPod.

After this point, the piece separated into two scenes, each wordless, taking place at the same time. On the far left corner of the stage, Swedenborg struggled and agonized in his office, watched over by a robed and hooded lower angel who hovered about him, attempting to help him recognize the true location of the soul. Together the two created an odd, mimicking sort of dance – the lower angel copied Swedenborg’s every move with a sort of childlike innocence and curiosity, rubbing its face, resting its elbows on the desk and even smoking a cigarette just as it had seen Swedenborg do. Despite the endearing humor of this interaction,  the scene was also tinged with sadness. Swedenborg steadfastly failed to perceive any of the clues the lower angel left for him in his papers and soon drank himself into a nervous breakdown that left him hunched and crying at his desk.

At the same time, an entirely different scene was taking place on center stage, where an enormous low fenced pit was filled with white feathers and several small, colored orbs of light. Angels wearing white masks, white wigs, heavy grey dresses and large grey wings danced through this pit. While some moved to the slow, ethereal music in the graceful way one would expect of an angel, others kicked and jumped, thrashed around in the feathers or sat sullenly in corners before suddenly rushing off stage. The silent angels in their dances were at times charming, innocent, violent, funny, angry and sedate – as the archangel taught a lower angel how to fly, for example, he shook the little angel around violently before embracing her, both terrible and loving. “The realm of the angels is a reflection of life – the cruelty, the kindness … It’s really a reflection of who we are as well,” said Ping Chong at the post-performance discussion.

It is also at center stage that we get our few glimpses of the devil, an ugly green lizard creature in shining, decadent garb who at times speaks to the angels as they hurry through the feather pit, attempting to lure them off the spiritual path. The fact that no one besides himself and Swedenborg ever speaks during the course of the play makes his voice oddly striking, his speech loaded with smooth, slick clichés like “Spare a dime?” and “What’s your rush?”

At the climax of the piece, the two scenes finally seemed to merge – while the agonized Swedenborg drank, shredded his note and curled up on his desk, overwhelmed, two angels began to brawl in the pit, punching and kicking until finally one lay curled in the pit while the other escaped. Pitiless, the other angels circle around him and, with a terrifying clash of cymbals, the archangel clipped his wings while in his office Swedenborg screamed again and again, “Where is the seat of the soul?”

Strange, subtle and beautiful, Angels of Swedenborg tried to answer the impossible questions of life beyond materialism. It was able to show the audience an entirely different world while somehow remaining entirely universal, it was a mind-bending and powerful piece.

Photo courtesy of Damia Cavallari An angel mimics Swedenborg’s movements as he deals with inner turmoil in ‘Angels of Swedenborg’.