`Einstein on the Beach': two views of a masterly revival. Robert Wilson's sensitive staging shapes production

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Like most operas, ``Einstein on the Beach'' is identified most closely with its composer. Yet this particular opera is a special case, shaped from the beginning by director Robert Wilson in tandem with composer Philip Glass. It's easy to see why this has been overlooked. Glass's reputation has soared among American listeners -- boosted a lot by the recorded ``Einstein'' score itself -- since the show had its American premi`ere in 1976. By contrast, Wilson has worked largely in Europe during the past decade, forfeiting the ``exposure'' that American audiences demand from their cultural heroes.

One purpose served by the superb ``Einstein'' revival this season (in the ``Next Wave'' series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) was to enhance Wilson's reputation in his own country by recalling the visual majesty of this astonishing production. It's not an easy work, running nearly five hours with no story, dialogue, or intermission.

Yet its indelible imagery and transfixing rhythms carry it to heights of theatrical splendor that I've rarely seen matched in more conventional settings -- the Broadway hit ``Sunday in the Park With George'' is a pale echo by comparison. And while music is the motor that propels it, stagecraft is the magic at its heart.

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In place of plot and characters, ``Einstein'' focuses on images that go through slow, unexpected changes. Near the beginning we see a locomotive in profile; later we see the train receding from us at night; in the last act it has turned into a large building. Similarly, we twice see a flying saucer hovering over a field full of dancers and are transported miraculously into the ``spacemachine'' at the climax.

What does it all mean? Not much, if taken literally. But critics who call the work shallow miss the essence of Wilson's art, which is to explore, in visionary terms, pervasive tensions between order and disorder.

Simply put, the content of ``Einstein'' is rooted in elements of disorder: randomness, irrational connections, the subtraction of information. Yet these elements are contained within a tightly designed structure marked by painstaking, even obsessive, artistic discipline. What might have led to chaos leads to harmony before our very eyes! And the effect is as gorgeous as it is unexpected.

The three courtroom scenes make a vivid example of this process, beginning with bizarre juxtapositions and ending with elegant simplicity. First we see the room decked out for a trial, with a huge and improbable bed standing in the center. Later, half the room and half the bed vanish, to be replaced by a prison. In the last act everything is gone except the bed, seen only as a long rectangle of white light which, in an inspired 20-minute scene, is silently hauled from the floor until it disappears into the heights above the stage. The more we watch, the less we see and the more we sense the strange but palpable rightness of Wilson's exquisitely crafted plan.

To stress the importance of Wilson's achievement in ``Einstein'' is not to belittle Glass's score, still the pinnacle of his career, which has veered in more conservative directions lately. Wilson's contribution is felt in the sounds of ``Einstein'' as well, however, since the spoken portions reflect the director's yen for eccentric texts by such nonwriters as dancer Lucinda Childs (the rigorous choreographer of the ``Einstein'' revival) and performance artist Christopher Knowles. Indeed, the combination of Glass's music and Wilson's words is a first-class collaborative achievement even without their visual counterparts.

``Einstein on the Beach'' may be ahead of its time even now, almost a decade after it first appeared. Its run at BAM did not sell out, as had been hoped, and a planned United States tour has been shelved because its projected cost outweighs its likely income.

But its reputation may continue to grow as new audiences ease into the insinuating rhythms of Wilson's career. I was flanked at a BAM performance by two early teens who found ``Einstein'' fascinating. The recording is a fine document of its sonic dimension. This is truly ``a landmark in 20th century music theater,'' as a critic remarks in ``Robert Wilson: The Theater of Images,'' a highly readable book just published by Harper & Row. Its revival, more intense in my view than the original production as seen at the Met, was an aesthetic coup par excellence by the bold-as-brass Brooklyn Academy.

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