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
Conceived to travel, Wilson's Woyzeck uses skeletal scenery combined with computerized lighting. The visual style is eclectic, mixing elements of Weimar expressionism with 1960s minimal art and the kind of 1980s kitsch design popularized by the Memphis group (think Michael Graves tea kettles). With their lacquered, asymmetrical hairdos and stiffened costumes, the actors look like refugees from a Klaus Nomi concert, and their poses resemble Egyptian friezes. The Danish actors speak flawless English and, technically, are quite adept. Jens Jørn Spottag, who plays Woyzeck, offers something more impressive — the suggestion of a visionary inner life. But Woyzeck's tortured introspection and the gentle interplay between Woyzeck's young son and his grandfather (whom Wilson has renamed the Fool) are no match for the winking cabaret-styled delivery and one-note cynicism of the other performers. The result is an emotional impasse that even the energetic grind-house score can't overcome. This Woyzeck is visually elegant and mean as spit. It depicts a world no one would want to live in and leaves you with the sinking suspicion that perhaps we all do.
It's the sheer nastiness of the production that makes it such a disturbing contrast to the work that Wilson did during the first decade of his career. My memory of those spectacles — The King of Spain (1969), The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud (1969), Deafman Glance (1970-71), The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin (1973), and Einstein on the Beach (1976) — is of their overwhelming tenderness and their slightly scary, dreamlike quality.
Wilson found what was potentially arresting in each of his performers, many of whom were nonprofessionals. There was Sheryl Sutton, the Medea figure of the four-hour-long Deafman Glance, standing impossibly erect in her high-necked black Victorian dress and moving in slow motion as she took a knife to her children. There was Cynthia Lubar, screaming in what sounded like a half-dozen voices at once in Letter for Queen Victoria. There was Andy de Groat, spinning like a Sufi — so fast that he turned into a blur of white light. There was Wilson himself doing a kind of spastic dance in which every joint of his body seemed to move independently or leading a chorus of 60 dancing mammies in doo-rags and blackface, all of them hovering at the far side of the stage as if they knew they barely had to show themselves to make an impact.
WILSON GREW UP IN TEXAS AND CAME TO New York in 1963. He had studied painting and architecture, but he was also involved in doing dance and speech therapy with differently abled children and with the elderly. Two of the children he worked with — Christopher Knowles and Raymond Andrews — directly influenced his early work. Andrews, a deaf and mute African-American boy whom Wilson adopted, is the titular deaf man in Deafman Glance. Knowles, who is severely brain-damaged, wrote the poetic Gertrude Steinlike texts that Wilson incorporated into almost all of his performance pieces through Einstein on the Beach. Knowles' reading of his own texts on the CD of Einstein suggests the haunting quality of Wilson's work in the '60s and '70s far better than any photographic documentation. Knowles and Andrews, like Lubar, Sutton, de Groat and several other adults, became the core of a loosely knit performing troupe, the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds. It was from the work Wilson did with this company that the distinct aesthetic of his theater developed.
Which is to say that, during the first decade of his career, Wilson's work was collaborative in a way that it has not been since 1980. Wilson has become the most peripatetic of directors, staging pieces with repertory and opera companies all over the globe. And although he has directed some great performers — the German actor Edith Cleaver and the opera diva Jessye Norman among them — some of us still miss the surprise, trust and, yes, tenderness that was evident in the bond between Wilson and the Byrds.
"I'VE ALWAYS THOUGHT ABSTRACTLY — through theme and variations rather than narrative. Or through counterpoint — putting two different things together so that you see each of them more clearly. But they have to be the right two things," Wilson says, explaining the aesthetic principles that guide his work during the ride to the airport. He and I and another man (whom I take to be his manager) are crunched together in the back seat of the car, and Wilson is still rifling through his pockets looking for his ticket.
Wilson (left) with longtime collaborator
(Photo courtesy Hansen-Hansen.com)
"How are we doing, James?" he asks the driver, who, on the way back, tells me that he drives Wilson whenever he does a piece at BAM and that he's always late getting to the airport. Now the manager is calling assistants, the travel agent, the airline, while Wilson rummages through his carry-on bags, dumping their contents piece by piece onto my lap.
"It's hysteria," he announces, not unhappily, as he attempts to answer the questions I am intermittently trying to pose.
"European actors are into naturalism, so in the beginning they feel restricted by me. They find it hard to maintain a line of tension. They fight it, but once they master it, they find a different kind of freedom. And now, with the computerized lighting changes, they have to be even more precise about being exactly in the right place. But if you look at Chaplin or Keaton or Astaire, their timing was meticulous. All theater is dance. Do you think we can be there in 15 minutes, James?"