by Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.
This past summer the most important theatrical occasion was the Lincoln Center Festival of the Arts, an annual event that brings international theater to our shores. Without the Festival we would never see the work of well known artists who work primarily in Europe. Two leading experimentalists, or rather non-traditionalist directors, were the main offerings: our own American born Robert Wilson, and from France Ariane Mnouchkine and her Theatre du Soleil. Both artists brought big pieces to the Festival and, on the whole, impressed a majority of the audience. But while I admire Wilson and Mnouchkine, and am happy they played here, I did think their pieces fell short of what was expected.
First Robert Wilson. I have been following Wilson since he was a boy working in a tiny studio in Greenwich Village and have always considered him a genius. It did not take long for his extraordinary talent to be recognized, and soon he was the leading light at BAM where Harvey Lichentstein, then the Artistic Director, gave him full reign. In 1970 his "Deafman Glance" and in 1973 "The Life of Times of Joseph Stalin" two extraordinary works made Wilson the leading experimentalist of his time. His pieces were five or six hours long but nobody minded it; watching him was always a beautiful experience. He had developed a singular style of movement, a dazzling montages of images, an amazing technique with lighting, and a new kind of deconstruction of texts, where language was minimum, and movement and images were everything. Soon Wilson was working all over Europe, receiving numerous awards and great critical acclaim, and directing opera, plays, and his own original pieces.
Over the years he had become an icon. He attracted audiences all over the world and created pieces as fast as he could turn them out. Although his fame in Europe and in Asia held steady, he could only attract limited audiences in New York. Even at BAM he played only a week or two; at the Metropolitan Opera where he directed a magnificent and unusual "Lohengrin," he was booed, received bad notices and was never to return. And now in this new production "I La Galigo," an epic poem from Indonesia, three hours long with no intermission, he played to half full houses.
Bob Wilson has tried every form of theater (including opera), and now an epic,"La Galigo." With this huge work of fifty performers, musicians, dancers, acrobats, animals (and those imitating animals), Wilson has reached a point of no return. The work is a mystical extravaganza (In Indonesia, it is not performed at all, but chanted), dealing with love, morality, cosmology, violence, redemption, and the passions and struggles of the hero's journey. Of course there is always a hero and always his quest faces challenges and difficulties. But to describe the plot's complications would take more space than I'm allowed. Suffice to say, this production was a hybrid mixture, a big soup, an unintelligible mishmash that not even Bob Wilson could handle.
The first problem was the production's low energy, and the director's inability to clearly delineate the story. The supertitles didn't help; the translations were in stilted English. Wilson's famous actor's slow motion walk had been useful and beautiful in other productions; now it appeared as a Wilson cliche. He seemed to be imitating himself: his vocabulary was reminiscent of his other works so that boredom quickly set in. Another disappointment was the mise en scene. Wilson is known for minimilism, the space counts; every image is perfectly arranged, like an exquisite painting. His forte lay in starting images, not in a cluttered stage with dozens of people standing around with little purpose. In fact, the entire production had the feel of a Broadway kitsch extravaganza. Although the performers were natives Indonesians, their gestures appeared to be forced rather than organic. At times they looked like Americans behaving like Asians.
Finally the mixture of people, costumes, dancing, acrobatic effects, the repetition of masked animals, not once but half a dozen times, indicated a failure of the imagination. I have been a devotee of Robert Wilson's work and have loved most of his productions. But something seems to be seriously wrong here. Some people thought hubris had overtaken Wilson; others thought epic was simply not his milieu. To try it was worthwhile, but as they say, the bite was not large enough.
Why was Wilson unsuccessful with this production? Is it that he has, for a long time, overreached, that he has worked on too many projects at great speed, traveling all over the world, with one production after another without a respite--like an obsessive who cannot stop to breathe, or relax not even for a week. Is it conceivable that Wilson--now in his sixties--has run out of ideas? Creativity takes more time. Wilson has been doing this routine for more than thirty years and at this pace. Isn't it normal, even logical to become tired?
Hopefully Robert Wilson will stop long enough to have a look at himself and maybe ask his friends for the truth. But an icon gets into trouble. No one will criticize an icon. No will tell him the truth. Perhaps Wilson needs to be less icon and more his authentic self.
Margaret Croyden's most recent book is "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
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