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The Day Before Death, Destruction & Detroit III
Editor's Note: We usually don't cover shows with runs so limited that the event is over by the time we post a review. However, Wilson's work stirs curiosity in many circles and also tends to travel to other places. And so, this review of his contribution to the Lincoln Center Festival. --e.s.
When theatre director and designer Robert Wilson was studying architecture, his teacher swept into the classroom one day and said to the students:""Today I would like you draw a city. You have three minutes starting from now." When the time had elapsed Wilson had sketched his Mecca: an apple with a crystal cube inside it, "reflecting the universe", he explained.
Three years have passed since Wilson first came up with the architectural plans for a piece about the Apocalypse. It consists of twelve coupled scenes, the first paired with the last, the second with the penultimate, and so on into the center. Since movement, written text and sound have been imposed upon these bare structural timbers, the framework, now deeply embedded in the work's vast structure, is but a winking glass prism pulsing barely visible at the heart of a roaring vessel, The Days Before Death Destruction & Detroit III.
Balanced between past and future, Umberto Eco's novel The Island of the Day Before is the textual melody to Wilson's developing score. The novel, which tells the story of a Renaissance nobleman shipwrecked at the dateline between today and tomorrow, slides in and out of Wilson's powerful visual poem. Less coherent narrative than stark mantra in the mouth of actress Fiona Shaw, the novel resonates at a metaphorical level, in its preoccupation with the double, and an adventure into the unknown.
Under A. J. Wessbard's fiercely expressive lights, the stage shifts and glows from soft grays to violent purples. Isolating inanimate objects under glaring rays until they themselves appear to shimmer and move, animate figures depicted by Wilson's tight ensemble of actors variously scuttle, crawl and gravely walk from the snarling umber beyond. As much as there is music in Fiona Shaw's sonorous speech, Ryuichi Sakamoto's cyber-technic music envelopes the entire fugue of music, light and movement into a seamless blanket of rhythmic sound.
A blood-red rooster predicts the end of the world; a snowy owl sees a future ahead. The sparring of antagonist and protagonist in the prologue resonates throughout the performance through the depiction of light and dark, levity and weight, brevity and length. Ideas occur in pairs across all twelve scenes: the sea and sky, heaven and hell. A moment of frozen beauty, as a futuristic blue angel descends from above, is interrupted by ugliness as the arrogant rooster tears strips from a ream of paper to a caterwaul of noise.
Throughout the performance, Wilson laughs at the world always grasping for meaning, having fun with tradition and the expectations of society. A ritualistic moment where a young child glides solemnly across the stage, is polarized by the freakish appearance of the 90-year old Turkish opera diva Semiha Berksoy. Draped in a skimpy theatrical costume, she moves slowly across the front of the stage on a velvet divan, bawling Isolde's "Liebestod" with the seductive passion of someone sixty years her junior. The audience titters and then applauds. Her presence confuses us, precariously pitting bad taste against high art. The same thing occurs in interpolating Eco's cerebral text with fragments of poetry by Wilson's autistic collaborator, Christopher Knowles. "Oh Mandy" the poet croons Beach Boys style; the effect is uplifting and alienating at the same time. We do not know what to think. Wilson tells us to use our hearts and not our heads and still we use our heads.
As darkness finally gives way to a bright white ending, so the subtlety of Wilson's playfulness leans towards that "higher meaning" he so often spurns. Awe-struck and exhausted by the savage grace and poise of this sensual paradise, the itch to interpret becomes irresistable in the final moments. The hint of redemption at the climax of the play destroys the spell of the trundling pageant across its carnival landscape. An unfortunate finale to a work that otherwise succeeds in deriving unity purely from within, the ultimate images mix with the outside world of everyday limits and interpretation. Wilson's shiny reflection of the universe suddenly procures a dull little dent.
At the center of Wilson's work there is no center; the translucent cube in the middle of the apple is crystal precisely so it cannot be seen. Wilson begins each work with a skeleton that he smothers under flesh, skin and glittering robes. As the memory of the swirling opulence fades and the thrill of the experience with it, we are left to chew on the bare bones alone.