In Review > North America

Einstein on the Beach

BROOKLYN
Brooklyn Academy of Music
9/23/12

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Einstein on the Beach's Scene 1A, "Train," in BAM's revival of the 1976 collaboration by Robert Wilson, Lucinda Childs and Philip Glass
© Stephanie Berger 2012
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Antoine Silverman as Einstein/Solo Violinist in Einstein on the Beach
© Lucie Jansch 2012
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Einstein's chorus with Kate Moran and Helga Davis
© Stephanie Berger 2012

A whole generation of musicians has grown up with Einstein on the Beach firmly entrenched in history textbooks. The 1976 collaboration by Robert Wilson, Lucinda Childs and Philip Glass is much discussed and much analyzed. But it isn’t produced very often, and when it came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in September (part of a ten-city tour), New York hadn’t seen it in twenty years. There was a new focus on the work itself this time, since none of the original three creators appeared in the performances, as they often used to. Indeed, it was unlikely that anyone onstage had appeared in the piece before. The new crop of performers, it turned out, was able to make a real impression. The breakout star was Kate Moran, who (among many tasks) enacted the famous monologue about a supermarket aisle of bathing caps, repeated dozens of times to growing lunatic effect, as a virtuoso showpiece. Everyone in the mostly young cast was untiring in great feats of endurance (the intermission-less performance lasted four and a quarter hours on Sept. 23) and memory. But the effect was not mesmerizing and meditative, as the history books would have us believe. Rather, the experience was exhilarating from first to last.

One of the important but under-reported elements of Wilson’s art is his sense of whimsy and humor. His big scenes may be filled with stylization of movement, but we learn to expect a little party trick at the end. “Train,” early in the show, is designed in a black and white scheme with just one red shirt, until we get the silliness of a red beard on the train conductor. That’s all there is until the discreet appearance of a tiny red handkerchief at the end. The bathing cap speech seamlessly cruises through a Patty Hearst joke. The two court stenographers, in goofy and high-energy performances by Sharon Milanese and Shakirah Stewart, eventually decide that the people in the audience are the real show. Childs and Glass don’t work in this manner, but Wilson’s ideas are probably more effective for the juxtaposition. Wilson also tells us a lot about ritual. The scene changes are often staged, and the entire set for “Trial” is rebuilt just so that half of it can be dismantled in front of us. Wilson’s work, too easy to parody and too easy to take for granted, has been the most valuable stage direction of the last forty years, because it leaves no room for default actions, no room for thoughtless motion and no room for loss of concentration. Of course it appears to be simple. The things in art that appear simplest are the things that are the most difficult, as anyone who has ever tried to play a Mozart concerto can confirm.

Thirty-six years on, Einstein as a work is starting to show some seams. The way the two pure dances by Childs are dropped into the show has the feel of vaudeville (though I happen to like vaudeville), and one of them seems indistinguishable from another Glass–Childs collaboration that has been touring the country. The mishmash of “Building,” in which Wilson forces together de Chirico and Vermeer against a most un-Glassian saxophone solo (presumably improvised by Andrew Sterman), does not come across as intentional or structurally meaningful, and the final tableau “Spaceship” doesn’t feel big enough to balance what has come before. But the sweet concluding “Knee Play” is real music drama: the greeting-card quality of the monologue, hackneyed on the page, blossoms into a cherishable moment only because of all that has come before and the purified first return of the music from four hours earlier. 

The overall effect was anything but that of a museum piece; the mood inside and outside the auditorium was more of a street fair. Yet Einstein is old enough that the idea of “performance practice” unavoidably comes up. (I look forward to the day when David Cassidy and Mr. Bojangles are explained in scholarly footnotes.) There have been enormous advances in lighting instruments to carry out Wilson’s conceptions. This 2012 production, built to tour with lighting designs by Urs Schoenebaum, puts to shame major opera houses where new productions are still lit with follow spots. But the show sounded horrid. When we heard the choral singers without mixing we heard beautiful voices, beautifully balanced. But the sound design had plenty of volume and absolutely no definition. Spoken text over music was unintelligible; and the distortion in the organ solo was painful. If there’s a point to having live music instead of a recording — and of course there is — it’s going to have to sound better than this. spacer 

WILLIAM R. BRAUN

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