Waiting for Wilson

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Waiting for Wilson

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

The trick to appreciating Robert Wilson is patience.

In 2002, Wilson's musical version of Woyzeck at UCLA Live! blew me away. I'd seen a few Wilson productions before, but none grabbed me. Woyzeck, on the other hand, combined Wilson's slow movements and exquisite lighting with Tom Waits' laconic music. The effect was thrilling, and so for the last four years I've been waiting to be similarly blown away again.

I was still waiting when I saw Wilson's Parsifal last fall at LA Opera. Wagner's amorphous, shimmering music and his grandiose tale of Knights and the Holy Grail would seem to perfect match for Wilson's large-scale art. Indeed, there were some gorgeous tableaus, but Wilson's concept didn't really add much to the epic music-drama.

I was still waiting in February when Wilson's Madama Butterfly returned to Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. More successful than the Parsifal, this Butterfly soared in 2004, breathing new life into the old Puccini warhorse. This year's revival however, was not overseen by Wilson personally--so many of the nuances were gone; and overall, the performance lacked the sharpness of the first staging.

I was still waiting last month in Brooklyn when I saw Wilson's version of the classic Ibsen verse drama Peer Gynt. Peer Gynt predates Ibsen's modern, social plays. It's an old-fashioned, almost Homeric ode to the simple life of one ordinary man. Wilson's staging was the co-production of two of Norway's state theaters and was mounted as part of a worldwide observance of the 100th anniversary of Ibsen's death.

Peer Gynt is the most naturalistic work of Wilson's that I've yet seen. Real settings and objects in Ibsen's text actually appear on stage, and occasionally the characters move and speak in a way that seems almost realistic--although the piece was performed in Norwegian so I can't be a true judge of linguistic veracity.

The production had three actors portray the title character. The lanky Henrik Rafaelsen, who played the young Peer Gynt, was a dynamic stage presence; but as he gave way to the next Peer (and the show meandered into its third hour) I felt that Wilson's minimalism was a poor match for this earthy material.

To be fair Peer Gynt is a famously difficult piece to stage--as Hollywood's Theatre of Note learned earlier this year with their unfortunately titled, and unfortunately staged, A Vast Wreck, which tried to merge Ibsen and Our Town. So give Wilson credit for moments, and in the four-plus hours, there were a few, which did tenderly elicit the humanity Ibsen sought to evoke.

The waiting continued in Paris, as I took in Wilson's version on the Ride of the Valkuries, but finally, it happened back in New York three weeks ago. I was again blown away by Robert Wilson--this time by his production of Lohengrin. Controversial when it premiered 8 years ago--where the director was heavily booed while he took his bows at the Metropolitan Opera--today's audiences seem to have caught on. This time around, Lohengrin was a sellout success--and no boos, only boisterous applause.

Wilson's Lohengrin is not significantly different than his other work. The kabuki makeup, the slow ritual gestures, the emphasis of slight lighting changes instead of traditional sets--are all still on display in Lohengrin. But somehow the visuals, music and story all come together perfectly. The entire spectacle vibrates like a Rothko painting come to life.

All of this has made for a very Robert Wilson spring, but wait, it extends into the summer here in Los Angeles with The Black Rider.

The Black Rider is the first collaboration between Robert Wilson and Tom Waits. First staged in 1990, it's similar in style to the aforementioned Woyzeck, which the two would create 10 years later. The Black Rider doesn't dazzle in the same way that more mature Woyzeck did, but it's a strong piece nonetheless--perhaps the most accessible theater piece that Wilson has done. Waits' gravelly cabaret songs mesh perfectly with the director's vision of a German legend about a gun that shoots magic bullets. If there's a problem with the work, it's with William S. Burroughs' words, which are not without interest, but are without dramatic cohesion. The Black Rider runs through June 11 at the Ahmanson, and yes it's weird and it rambles, but trust me: with Wilson you have to have patience.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.