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.
Depicting himself as a child, he re-enacts having to play “retarded” on the street in order to protect himself from being beaten up and robbed by the local gang. The performance is as rich as the writing: With telling details from the “wet money” he would always carry (from having to stuff dollar bills into his mouth as protection against being robbed), to catching ringworm in a local swimming pool, to his grandfather’s “sliding” dentures.
Harris moves on to those he bumped into along his journey into adulthood. He dons a silk scarf in order to inhabit his Aunt Betty, a woman in her 30s who seduced him as a youth. We watch that mesmerizing and deeply human seduction entirely through the lense of this gentle, lonely woman, so tenderly performed by Harris.
The show is constructed as a series of scenes that demarcate the eras of his youth. Through this dimension of Harris’ personal history, we meet the people who will gather for the birthday party. Uncle Feeva, for example, emerges as a striking portrait of a drug addict with an almost Chekhovian yearning to visit his own children and perhaps earn their respect.
In one scene, Harris conjures his estranged father from a time before the son was born: On the older man’s wedding day, Harris Sr. listens to the preacher state his bride’s middle name. In a revelatory detail, the bridegroom confesses he never knew his new wife’s middle name — the first pebble in what will turn into a very rocky marriage, rife with domestic violence as well as more muted manifestations of rage. This does raise the question of how Harris Jr. would have obtained that insight from his own father’s wedding day, a dramaturgical quibble in a haunting show in serious need of an editor, and possibly a dramaturge.
The play’s final portrait of Harris’ 94-year-old grandfather, facing down a gunman in the post office, is brilliant for its physical and vocal detail, as well as its blend of drama and wisdom. It’s the light around which the other stories flutter, yet it’s still a random source of the piece’s chaotic unity — perhaps because the grandfather has no interaction with Harris’ other characters.
North Philly is nonetheless a compassionate work in progress that offers a serious challenge to Robert Wilson’s theory that the jerky stop-start rhythms of familiar life don’t offer authentic truths about the way we move through time.
NORTH PHILLY | Written and performed by RALPH HARRIS | STELLA ADLER THEATRE, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., 2nd Floor, Hollywood | Wednesdays, 8 p.m., through December 17 | (323) 960-7612.