Robert Wilson has an ambitious goal: to reorder our perceptions of theatrical space and time. To this end, he builds elaborate edifices of objects and words -- and elegantly blows them to smithereens. He then restructures the dislocated elements according to his own extravagant vision.
The results can be fascinating, disorienting, bewildering, and cheerfully entertaining at the same time.
"Dialogue/Curious George" is the fifth in a series of "dialogues" concocted by wilson in collaboration with his colleague Christopher Knowles. In terms of stagecraft, it falls between the extremes of other recent Wilson works -- less maximal than "Einstein on the Beach," less minimal than "I Was Sitting on My Patio This Guy Appeared I Thought I was Hallucinating." It has two characters, a simple setting, a shifting background of rear-stage projections, and a complicated soundtrack of noises, music, and words.
The characters, and the shattered story elements that appear from time to time, are based on H. A. Rey's "Curious George" books for children, about "a monkey who had only one fault: He was too curious." Knowles plays this friendly simian, in a literal monkey suit complete with long tail, while Wilson plays his pal, "the man in the yellow hat."
"Dialogue/Curious George", in part, is a meditation on childhood. This is appropriate territory for artists who want to escape the entrapment of familiar conventions; one thinks of filmmaker Stan Brakhage, whose fascination with childhood coincides with his wish to learn how many colors there might be in a field of grass for a baby who has not learned what "green" is supposed to be.
Importantly, Knowles and Wilson do not seek to charm us or lull us with their view of childhood. Rather, they seem most concerned with the possibilities for extreme chaos and extreme order that coexist in a child's world. The stage is architecturally symmetrical, furnished and lighted with ostentatious precision, and separated from the audience by an implacable ring of alarm clocks. Within this ordered setting, all manner of emotional implications and explosions seem just barely contained.
Reflecting this contrast between obvious order and implied anarchy, "Dialogue/Curious George" is at its best when it is either most formal or most freewheeling. It reaches heights of formalism when Wilson and Knowles trace ritualistic maneuvers around the stage; when they maintain rigid postures within visually ingenious tableaux; when two gestures fall into mysterious unity -- Knowles lifting and lowering a stuffed animal, for example, while a disembodied pillow mirrors his movements in center stage.
Vividly complementing such moments are Knowles's outburts of childlike exuberance, as when he cavorts about the stage and mimics a well-known radio advertisement. Meanwhile, the fractured soundtrack provides antic point and counterpoint to all this, enveloping the actors' words just as the rigorously designed primary-colored setting encompasses their actions.
It its utterly original use of familiar theatrical materials, "Dialogue/Curious George" is consistently involving and sometimes downright flabbergasting. Once again it becomes crystal clear that Wilson is pointing the way toward a whole new kind of theater experience based not on actors and characters and stories but on the supremely poetic rearrangement of physical elements we have taken for granted as long as anyone can remember.
Examining Wilson's latest show, one comes up with objections that have arisen in the past. Wilson trusts too much to Knowles's text, allowing it to lapse into silliness and banality. And while Knowles has an appealing presence, Wilson is not an ideal performer of his own works, evincing a tentativeness of movement and an irony of vocal expression that don't fit the explosiveness of his overall conception.
Still, he and Knowles have scored another telling blow in favor of their heroically nonlinear form of theater. Once hopes "Dialogue/Curious George" is seen widely, and that Wilson will overcome his recurrent financial difficulties and work again in the United States on the monumental scale that most perfectly fits his radical vision.