Robert Wilson is one of today's most celebrated directors, active in theaters around the world. But he has a special relationship with Lincoln Center, where the legendary 1974 presentation of "Einstein on the Beach" launched him toward his current renown with American audiences.
He returned this summer with the world premire of "The Days Before: Death, Destruction & Detroit III," opening Lincoln Center Festival '99 with a cascade of color, music, poetic prose, and dance-like movement. Its aesthetic ambitions may not be surpassed before the festival ends, even though the show - a sequel to two productions created for the German stage - falls short of his greatest achievements.
At once a rigorous artist and a canny entertainer, Wilson clearly assembled "The Days Before" with a general-audience festival in mind. As a rigorous-artist, he gave the work many of his stylistic trademarks: slow-motion staging, a nonlinear structure, no trace of a conventional story.
As a canny-entertainer, he inveigled a star-powered cast into this avant-garde extravaganza with Tony Randall and Isabella Rossellini reading the text (from an Umberto Eco novel) that provided the verbal glue for his wildly unpredictable images.
This text turned out to be the production's most problematic element, delighting some with its allusive language, but displeasing others who found it ponderous and distracting.
Wilson's images could have held the stage on their own, as a skeptical owl and a prophetic rooster presided over scenes envisioning a dream-like apocalypse, populated with characters ranging from angels and worshippers to executioners and a czar.
They might have carried even more power if they'd been accompanied only by Ryuichi Sakamoto's evocative music, Christopher Kondek's crisply etched video, and the passionate word play of Christopher Knowles, a longtime Wilson associate who gave the show's most indelible performance.
Be this as it may, "The Days Before" elicited many cheers, proving that Wilson is still capable of pleasing a diversified crowd with his blend of 20th-century modernism (electronic music, mixed-media backgrounds, stylized irony) and 19th-century nostalgia (clips from movies depicting ancient times, no vulgarity, a stage-tableau sensibility). He's one of a kind, and his career is thriving as heartily as ever.
r Lincoln Center Festival '99 continues through July 25. Still to come are performances by Steve Reich and Musicians, the Kronos Quartet, the Abbey Theatre of Ireland, the Nederlands Dans Theater, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and many others.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society