ROBERT WILSON'S new production of Henrik Ibsen's last play, ``When We Dead Awaken,'' demonstrates that the world's most renowned avant-garde stage director still holds to the ambition that has unified his career: to make the theater a place where the eye reigns supreme, and the art of vision is valued above all else. In the past, Mr. Wilson's greatest work - the opera ``Einstein on the Beach,'' for example - has sprung directly from his own ideas and those of his collaborators. When he has used a well-known text for inspiration, as in his production of the Euripedes tragedy ``Alcestis,'' narrative logic has appeared to hamper his inventiveness, pinning his fancies to earth instead of letting them soar.
``When We Dead Awaken,'' at the American Repertory Theatre (ART), finds Wilson triumphing over that problem. One factor in this is the play itself, which is as extravagant and even bizarre as some of Wilson's own notions. Wilson respects the letter of the text to a large extent, and conveys a fair amount of its dramatic value. At the same time he makes it a vehicle for the mannerisms - slow motion, expressionistic lighting, nonrealistic poses, and the like - that have become his trademarks. The result is an odd hybrid but a fascinating one.
``When We Dead Awaken'' marked Ibsen's turn to heavy symbolism instead of the dramatic realism that he pioneered in the 19th century. It is a ``terrible and difficult play,'' as one translator called it, and Ibsen probably didn't expect it to be produced, especially since it ends with an onstage avalanche that's supposed to bury the two main characters.
Its protagonist is an elderly sculptor who realizes, when reunited with an old lover, that his devotion to art has prevented him from a full engagement with life itself. He and his now-insane lover are contrasted with his passionate young wife and a feral bear-hunter who lives entirely for the moment.
Wilson's visual style is based largely on startling juxtapositions that defamiliarize actions and objects by throwing them into strange new contexts. One might expect his techniques to prove inappropriate when applied to a classic figure like Ibsen, but they serve this particular drama well by diverting attention from its turgidity and obviousness. More important, his techniques fill the stage with weird and wonderful concoctions that carry their own spectacular energy.
Some of Wilson's devices are overdone, as when he makes the hunter (already a vulgar and boorish figure in Ibsen's text) a foot-stomping clown with a supposedly comical accent. Yet other ideas work magnificently well, and the overall design of the production is breathtakingly beautiful, especially when Wilson gives rein to the most futuristic facets of his sensibility - slashing the stage with a luminescent stream, for instance, or portraying the hunter's servant as a dreamlike visitor from some unearthly dimension.
The acting by members of the ART company is mostly excellent, reflecting the troupe's experience with Wilson's unusual demands in earlier collaborations. Even more brilliant work is done by visitors to the company: long-time Wilson associate Sheryl Sutton, whose movements have an astonishing grace and fluency, and the renowned tap-dancer Charles (Honi) Coles, whose musical divertissements set off the weightiness of Ibsen's drama to bluesy perfection.
Wilson is the true star of the show, however. From the beginning, his art has rested on an understanding of the complex relationship between order and chaos. He has usually explored this by choosing the elements of his theater pieces almost at random - assembling a cheerfully chaotic assortment of images, words, noises, lights, objects - and then arranging these into patterns of striking gracefulness and precision.
Wilson complicates and enriches this practice in ``When We Dead Awaken'' by adding the style, content, and historical weight of an existing work to his own preoccupations and priorities. The compelling result marks an important new chapter in his continuing development of a ``theater of images'' that is visionary in every possible sense.
The play continues at ART through March 9, then travels to the Alley Theatre of Houston, May 22-26.