`The Knee Plays': imagistic interludes from Robert Wilson

Robert Wilson likes to be formal and precise about the dreamlike mysteries he shares with his audience. So the program for ``The Knee Plays,'' his latest production at the American Repertory Theatre (ART) here, offers a step-by-step outline of the action. Before the lights go down for the first scene, you know the evening will begin with a man reading a book in a tree while a lion crouches underneath, and finish with a tree growing from a book in a library -- and that the characters will range from a famous admiral to an anonymous Japanese basket-seller.

On paper, the show sounds like quite an epic, with settings as diverse as a tropical jungle, the bottom of a sea, and the United States during the Civil War.

What you can't learn from perusing the program is how ingeniously director Wilson makes the epic come to life, not using elaborate tricks and illusions, but drawing on a small bundle of elegant stage effects with roots in traditional Japanese theater as well as his own imagination. For all its exotic locations and events, ``The Knee Plays'' is one of Wilson's more modest concoctions, depending less on size and spectacle than on simplicity and transparency -- qualities that shine through almost every moment of the splendid new production of the work that runs through Oct. 5 at the ART and then begins a national tour.

``The Knee Plays'' has a history that's as unusual as its name. It began when Wilson decided to assemble a massive international production, called ``the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down,'' to be performed at the Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles two years ago. Portions of the show were developed and staged in countries around the world and were to have come together in California for a limited number of marathon performances lasting some 10 hours. Although these never took place for financial reasons, the complete ``CIVIL warS'' was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in drama this year -- which it did not receive, possibly because the entire show was never actually produced as intended.

As their name implies, ``The Knee Plays'' were conceived as joints or interludes between the major acts of ``the CIVIL warS,'' but they also stand on their own (like other sections of the work) as a full-fledged Wilson theater piece. They were developed in workshops at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where they had their premi`ere in 1984.

Like most Wilson productions, ``The Knee Plays'' don't care much about storytelling. Rather, they evoke moods and impressions through a series of unpredictable images that pass across the stage in stately slow-motion. What makes ``The Knee Plays'' different from such Wilson classics as ``Einstein on the Beach'' and ``The Golden Windows'' is their extreme simplicity of means. This is signaled in the first scene, a gentle pas de deux between a sparely clad dancer and a streamlined puppet.

The rest of the evening follows the same economical pattern, no matter how bold or far-reaching the ``plot'' becomes: Objects as varied as a tree and a world-traveling boat are represented by a handful of small geometrical frames, and events are subtly suggested by sly gestures and dancelike movements. There are some stunning visual surprises, to be sure, as when ocean depths are vividly conjured up by a film projected on the backdrop. Generally, though, ``The Knee Plays'' are as lean as they are lovely -- returning Wilson to the top of his form after his less-than-exhilarating ``Alcestis'' and ``Hamletmachine'' productions.

Also contributing to the evening's success is a witty music score by David Byrne, who does more with a few unamplified brass instruments (wonderfully played by Les Mis'erables Brass band) than I've ever heard him accomplish with his Talking Heads rock group. Byrne also wrote the show's intermittent script, a ``narration'' that has absolutely nothing to do with the visual action and is sometimes terrifically amusing, as when it serves up a string of cleverly contradictory predictions about civilization in the future. The artful choreography is by Suzushi Hanayagi; the lighting is by Heinrich Brunke. All the performers are first-rate.

The next portion of ``the CIVIL warS'' due for an American production is the so-called ``Rome Section,'' with music by Philip Glass, opening Dec. 14 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.

The national tour of ``The Knee Plays'' will include Los Angeles (Oct. 14-19); Berkeley, Calif. (Oct. 24-25); Boulder, Colo. (Oct. 28); Albuquerque, N.M. (Oct. 30-Nov. 1); Iowa City, Iowa (Nov. 7-8); Detroit (Nov. 13-16); Washington, D.C. (Nov. 19-22); New York (Dec. 2-3); and Burlington, Vt. (Dec. 6).

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