Lincoln Center Festival Takes Its Final Bow
Robert Wilson's 'Hamlet' enlivens Serious Fun! program
NEW YORK — Another summer in Manhattan means another Serious Fun! festival at Lincoln Center, but the edition now in progress is probably the last, since a new and larger festival is slated to replace it next year.
You might expect the Serious Fun! programmers to do something special for their final fling, justifying that jazzy exclamation point a bit more than usual. And sure enough, while their current lineup is heavy with familiar names, some of them are doing unfamiliar things.
Two of the opening attractions bore this out. Robert Wilson, a world-renowned director/designer/actor who has done little performing in recent years, kicked off the program with a one-person ''Hamlet'' in which he acted every role in sight. And composer John Adams, who normally swings between modernist classical pieces and operas like ''Nixon in China'' and ''The Death of Klinghoffer,'' served up a pop-song cycle with the unlikely title of ''I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky.''
Of the two offerings, Wilson's won hands down in terms of excitement, originality, and - seriously - fun.
''Hamlet: A Monologue'' takes place in the mind of its title character as he lies dying from the violent upheavals of Act V, remembering and reliving most of the events William Shakespeare's tragedy has inflicted on him. Wilson plays not only the Prince of Denmark but also his mother, uncle, friends, enemies, etc. This unconventional conceit works quite effectively, given the hallucinatory ambience Wilson has built into the show.
Among other alterations, he has reshuffled the play's chronology into an unpredictable new configuration - which may sound like a recipe for confusion but is really nothing of the sort, given the fact that Shakespeare's text is engraved into the minds and hearts of most schoolchildren in a process that generally begins around 10th grade. What makes ''Hamlet: A Monologue'' so captivating is less its Shakespearean aura than the bravura ways Wilson has found to scramble this up - and to derive from it a series of exquisite visual images, rooted in Elizabethan-based traditions yet charged with a sense of collagelike surprise that rings intuitively true in our postmodern age.
As for the acting, Wilson used to perform frequently in his productions; among other examples, I have vivid memories of his pantomime in ''Overture to the Fourth Act of Deafman Glance'' on opening night of the very first Serious Fun! festival. Several years ago I asked him why he'd stopped his onstage appearances, and his answer was admirably direct. ''I hate performing,'' he said, ''and now that I can get professionals to do it, I don't have to anymore.''
I'm delighted with his apparent change of heart, and so are plenty of others, judging from the rapturous applause that greeted his ''Hamlet'' in Alice Tully Hall.
Adams visited New York to talk up his just-completed song cycle before its opening at the John Jay Theatre. In one interview he made a characteristically witty observation - noting that as a minimalist and an opera composer, he's rarely had to think about getting to the point in a hurry. He went on to acknowledge that pop songs are an entirely different matter, requiring a tightness and economy that long-form compositions may successfully evade.
''I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky'' comprises 22 songs, and while they're certainly marked by tightness and economy, that's the highest compliment they call to mind.
Everything about this ''Earthquake/Romance,'' as the program labels the production, is earnest and high-minded, beginning with June Jordan's libretto. It focuses on seven ethnically diverse characters - white cop, black minister, Asian attorney, Hispanic mom, and so on - whose lives are jolted by a Los Angeles earthquake that happens in the second act with a burst of Sensurround-style noise.
Despite the social relevance of this material, however, Adams's music has an odd lack of passion. Perhaps tales of urban woe engage him less on a personal level than world-changing events like Richard Nixon's trip to China or an international terrorist ordeal; or perhaps the pop-song format simply failed to stir his creative juices.
In any case, only a few of the numbers have more than a memorable phrase or an engaging rhythm to recommend them. The whole enterprise has something almost quaint about it - as if ''Hair'' or ''West Side Story'' had reappeared on the scene making claims of cutting-edge originality.
The show was directed by Peter Sellars, a hugely talented artist who must have phoned in his amazingly dull contributions during rest breaks from some other engagement. The artworks that decorated the stage were painted by graffiti artists, a gimmick that's been done before. Donald Byrd did the forgettable choreography, and Grant Gershon conducted the ensemble of amplified musicians.