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
On a night shortly before his production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly opened at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion earlier this month, Robert Wilson spoke to a crowd of students and invited guests at USC’s Bing Theatre. In a white shirt, a slightly rumpled black jacket and trousers, and with soft black shoes to accommodate his occasional nimble movements, Wilson stood on the large and almost empty stage, sort of like Puck’s dad.
A screen behind him held the projected image — in duplicate — of a pair of worn shoes, as though part of a museum exhibit. The screen would later be used for photographs from Wilson’s operas and stage productions, such as The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin and Einstein on the Beach. Wilson was there to tell the story of his career, as have the writer/stars of so many one-man shows we’ve seen on L.A. stages in the past few months.
After his introduction, and the applause that followed, Wilson stood still and silent for a considerable time. And he stood there. And stood there. A few nervous titters came up from the audience. An actor is supposed to say something, or at least to move. He did neither for quite a long time. But Wilson is first and foremost a designer and a director. He would later explain how, sometimes, a scene in one of his productions would consist of a sculpted shaft of light, the way it caresses a wall.
“I begin with silence,” he said — when he finally did begin to speak. And even then, he would break off in the middle of a thought and let a fragment of an idea hang suspended by his silence and stillness, sometimes for a stretch of 15 seconds or so. Only in silence can one begin to understand anything with any depth of perception, he noted.
Wilson was trying to show how the rhythms of our lives, of our ever-diminishing attention spans, and the entertainments that reflect that diminishment on screens and stages, have little to do with the truth of the way time, and our life within it, actually move — that our perception of the faster pace of life is actually a misperception stemming from the disorienting effects of our culture.
Even in his Madama Butterfly, though Puccini’s score was rendered at a standard pace heard in any number of recordings, the actors moved in Wilson’s trademark slow motion, as though they were moving through a pool of Jell-O. “What you see on TV and in movies is this stop-start, stop-start, stop-start rhythm,” Wilson explained. “No no no no no no no no no,” he added in a playful falsetto, as though speaking to children. Every gesture, each movement, is a continuation of the one that preceded it. This, he believes, is a fundamental truth of the way we move through life. Animals understand this. That’s why they move so gracefully, while we, in comparison, move like buffoons.
Wilson has made a career as a visionary, for offering an alternative portal through which to comprehend the very motion of our lives. If he’s right, our perceptions of what we take to be real and true hang somewhere between illusion and delusion. If he’s wrong, he may be the most self-important carnival barker in the history of the American theater, passing off sleeping potions as truth serum. Some of his productions have gone on for days — “durational art” is the term for such marathons. He doesn’t mind if you leave and return. He admits he can’t sit through the entirety of some of them without passing out. His works don’t function by the rules of a Shakespeare epic, where if you miss Act 2, you’ve lost the story. Because Wilson’s creations are living designs, rather than designs for living.
Ralph Harris’ one-man show North Philly, at Hollywood’s Stella Adler Theatre, is the latest in a slew of compelling solo performances (including Alex Lyras and Robert McCaskill’s The Common Air, Chazz Palminteri’s A Bronx Tale and Jay Sefton’s The Most Mediocre Story Never Told) that offer a portrait of a community, or of a family, with one performer impersonating a gallery of characters floating around a central idea, like moths around a light. These shows dignify and celebrate what Wilson suggests are mere illusions of what we take to be true, a variation on Plato’s belief that what we see and hear are mere shadows on the wall of a cave. They are reflections of the stop-start rhythms of speech and gesture that Wilson implies keep insight at bay, seducing and possibly blinding us with their familiarity.
In North Philly, the centerpiece is his grandfather’s 94th-birthday party. Yet Harris goes beyond imitating his eccentric family members. In a snappy tan vest and matching trousers, he drapes himself over a barstool and, precocious and fearful, spins himself back to his childhood, where every dollar was counted and coveted. The musculature of the piece, as in most shows of this ilk, derives from the cadences and colloquialisms of dialect, accentuated by Don Reed’s studied direction.