`Serious Fun!' Lights Up Lincoln Center

Festival offers rich and eclectic mix of theater, dance, and fine art

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IT'S such a perfect marriage, you wonder why it didn't happen years earlier: Gertrude Stein, one of this century's most audacious authors, and Robert Wilson, an equally daring theatrical explorer.

The result of their union is Mr. Wilson's sparkling new production of Ms. Stein's little-produced 1938 play "Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights," which opened Lincoln Center's latest "Serious Fun!" festival with a memorable evening of exactly that.

Since the classic Faust story is a rather grim one - the title character sells his soul to Mephistopheles, after all, risking salvation for mere worldly gain - one approaches it expecting more seriousness than fun.

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But this leaves Stein's sensibility out of the equation. She always appreciated the importance of whimsy and spontaneity in art, and leavened her work accordingly.

Mr. Wilson, meanwhile, has done his share of brooding and meditative stagecraft, but has never forgotten how to laugh. Even his most avant-garde excursions have often dipped into amiable humor, as when, for just one example, the singers in his epic "Einstein on the Beach" started brushing their teeth in the middle of a virtuoso passage!

"Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights" is playful down to its bones, despite its source in the cautionary Faust legend.

It's also perfectly serious in its unfailing attention to the sounds, rhythms, and nuances of the cascading words that Stein splices together like a string of literary firecrackers.

Wilson makes the game even more interesting by dividing the role of Doctor Faustus among three actors, Mephisto among two actors in different-colored costumes, and the heroine - a young woman with four first names - among three actresses.

The other characters are played by one performer apiece, but they're pretty exotic anyway, since they include a talking dog and a snake named Mr. Viper.

It's hard to summarize the plot, in which Doctor Faustus takes time off from inventing lightbulbs to cure the heroine after Mr. Viper bites her.

The point of the play isn't its story, but its language, which dances across the stage in patterns as elegant as they are cryptic.

The sentences don't always make sense - rhyme and meter outweigh significance in Stein's text - but they always feel right, even when you can't put your finger on why.

If you've always agreed with Stein that "a rose is a rose is a rose," you'll be perfectly at home as Doctor Faustus lights his lights.

Indeed, what makes Stein such a perfect partner for Wilson is the concreteness she attributes to language. For both artists, sounds and textures count more than meanings and messages.

Both are also vigorous enemies of storytelling speed. Stein's words repeat and repeat in endless spirals, just as Wilson's eloquent images crawl g-r-a-d-u-a-l-l-y across the stage in the slow-motion style that has been his chief trademark for 20 years.

Yet the result is anything but boring, since the circles and repetitions of Stein's style energize Wilson's tableaux as effectively as Philip Glass's music did in "Einstein on the Beach," the opera that is probably Wilson's most celebrated achievement.

"Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights" has now departed from Lincoln Center, where it was performed by a visiting German cast (from the Hebbel-Theater in Berlin) that is touring internationally with the production. But the Serious Fun! festival continues through July 30 with a diverse mixture of events.

As a bonus, in the lobby of Alice Tully Hall throughout the festival is a sensational show of sculptures, drawings, and exquisitely inexplicable objects by Stuart Sherman, an artist of uncommon imagination and a delightful disdain for the laws of time, space, and logic. Seriousness has rarely been more fun. Coming attractions include Clowning by Cirque-du-Soleil star David Shiner and mime Bill Irwin (today and tomorrow); an "eccentric's soliloquy" by British performer Rose English, with a horse as guest star (July 28); and "Megadance '75," a retrospective of mid-'70s choreography by such culture heroes as Meredith Monk, Lucinda Childs, Paul Taylor, Douglas Dunn, and Yvonne Rainer (July 29-30). All performances are at 8 p.m.

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