Wilson's `CIVIL warS' frames exotic images within an orderly structure

Robert Wilson's latest production, a hefty chunk of his epic ``the CIVIL warS,'' is a teeming mixture of illusions and allusions. Settings range from a battlefield and a drugstore to an arctic landscape and the throne room of Frederick the Great. Dancing bears and corpselike ``submariners'' share the stage with a Snow Owl, an Earth Mother, and a floating Abraham Lincoln who's taller than two ordinary people. Running through March 17 at the American Repertory Theatre here, the multimedia show embodies the most thrilling currents of Wilson's work without quite capturing the irresistible logic that propels his stagecraft at its very best. The images pulse to a dreamlike rhythm, inviting laughter as well as awe, springing new surprises with each fresh combination of scenery, film, gesture, and language. Although the result lacks the intuitive precision of a full-fledged Wilson masterpiece, its visual poetry -- cool yet caressing, whimsical yet elegant -- is marked by the director's unique ability to frame the most exotic products of his imagination in an orderly structure that's as comforting as it is ingenious.

The ART production includes two scenes and an epilogue from the complete, 12-hour ``CIVIL warS'' that was planned (but never realized) for the Olympic Arts Festival last year. The credits reflect Wilson's practice of collaborating with diverse talents in many fields: East German playwright Heiner M"uller is the coauthor; Argentine director Edgardo Cozarinsky worked on the films and projections; visual elements were contributed by American designer Tom Kamm and Japanese costumer Yoshio Yabara; music comes from classicist Franz Schubert, modernist Philip Glass, and rocker David Byrne, among others. The performers are members of the ART company -- the first resident American troupe to join with Wilson in such a project.

In the past, Wilson's deliberately paced ``theater of images'' has found its most enthusiastic audiences in Europe and Asia, leading him to work less and less in his own country. The production of ``the CIVIL warS'' at ART was received with cheers by a large and happy crowd at the weekend performance I attended, though. This may signal a new receptivity among Americans for stagecraft based less on story and character than on an unfettered flow of pictorial ideas.

I hope that's the case. For all its references to world history and universal myth, Wilson's work has deeply American roots -- note the icons from the War Between the States, the words from Hopi Indian prophecies, and even the ``merry Oldsmobile'' that populate ``the CIVIL warS.'' There's no reason such an openly American artist should be squeezed out of his native theater scene. It's time this expatriate planned more work back home, and the ART will have provided an invaluable service if its splendidly produced ``CIVIL warS'' gives momentum to such a move.

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