By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
|Photo courtesy Hansen-Hansen.com|
ROBERT WILSON LIVES IN ONE OF THE LAST ungentrified warehouses in Tribeca, and, aside from its size — about 7,000 square feet partitioned into three large rooms and several smaller ones — his loft is unremarkable, with white walls, a floor of gray cement and exposed piping. The contents, however, (and the arrangement of them) are another matter.
The largest room contains a collection of perhaps 150 chairs placed in straight lines along the floor, although some hang from the walls. Chairs have always figured prominently in Wilson's work — the chair slowly descending from the flies in The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud is a memorable image. The collection includes several versions of the Freud chair and of chairs constructed for other pieces, but there are also chairs from all over the world and from other eras. In the presence of all these variations on the theme of the chair, one can't help but think that although sitting is an act that all humans have in common, how and on what one sits differentiates individuals, cultures and histories. In other words, standing in what one might call Robert Wilson's living room, I am connecting concrete objects with abstract ideas exactly as I do when I watch his performance pieces.
"Look around," Wilson says to me, as he lopes by. He is a large (6 feet, 4 inches), somewhat awkwardly constructed (short waisted, long legged) man. His face is pale and rather round — the paleness emphasized by dark-rimmed glasses.
In the room with the chairs is also an impressive array of primitive wood and stone sculptures, numerous vessels (pitchers, pots, vases) and a few choice pieces of contemporary art. In the smaller, slightly less cluttered front room, a 3-foot-high Richard Serra sculpture stands a few feet away from a pair of Marlene Dietrich's silver shoes on a low plexiglass pedestal. This room is also a work room, and at 6:10 p.m., Wilson is standing with several other people around a large table, all of them trying to locate his plane ticket to London. He seems in no hurry despite the fact that his flight leaves in less than two hours and, given that this is rush hour, it's going to take at least an hour and a quarter to get to JFK, enough time for a last-minute interview.
FOR THE PAST 25 YEARS, ROBERT WILSON HAS spent more time directing plays, operas and his own unique spectacles in Europe than in the U.S. His music-theater production of German playwright Georg Büchner's 19th-century play Woyzeck, a collaboration with Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan who together wrote the music and lyrics, originated in 2000 at Copenhagen's Betty Nansen Theater and is performed in English by a Danish cast. The production (now at UCLA's Ralph Freud Playhouse through December 15) toured European cities from Sarajevo to London before its U.S. premiere at the BAM's Next Wave Festival.
Left incomplete when Büchner died of typhus in 1837 at age 23, Woyzeck was eventually published in a version cobbled together from several drafts and was first produced in 1913 as Europe hovered on the brink of the Great War. Elliptical in structure but dense with metaphors and allusions, it describes the descent into madness of a poor soldier who, to make extra money to support his mistress and their child, participates in a medical experiment devised by an army doctor. For nine months, Woyzeck is allowed to eat only peas, and it's this diet as much as his jealousy that drives him insane. Given the institutionalized brutality and exploitation he endures, his apocalyptic visions, like those of Shakespeare's Lear, have the ring of truth — and contemporary truth at that. Woyzeck was embraced by adherents of naturalism and expressionism, and, later, by the postmodernist theater in which Wilson is a dominant force. It has been interpreted as both a poetic psychodrama ä
and a political critique, with the character of Woyzeck hailed as the first proletarian tragic hero.
Wilson explains that he had seen many productions of Büchner's Woyzeck, and also of Wozzeck, the Alban Berg opera adapted from it. They all seemed rather flat to him, he says, although one of them was "very bloody." Wilson's Woyzeck is also very bloody, albeit in a transubstantiated way. When Woyzeck is driven into a jealous rage by the infidelity of Marie, his common-law wife, his outstretched hand is stained crimson by an invisible overhead spotlight, focused so perfectly that it barely spills onto the floor. And when Woyzeck escorts Marie to her doom, a huge black disk — like an eclipsed sun and moon rolled into one — descends in front of a vast cyclorama that turns bright red as Woyzeck takes his razor to Marie's throat. Light, which has always been a central element in Wilson's work, becomes the primary means of expression for one of the darkest plays in the history of Western drama.
Woyzeckis not the only Büchner play Wilson has directed. In 1993, he mounted a production of Danton's Death at the Alley Theater in Houston, and he has plans to do the playwright's Leonce and Lena in the not-too-distant future. This production also marks his third collaboration with Waits, who scored The Black Rider and Alice, both initially performed at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg in the early 1990s and a few years later in New York.