New York

Robert Wilson

Cherry Lane Theater

Robert Wilson’s celebrated dreamlike extravaganzas, such as his twelve-hour masterpiece The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, or the recent and far less satisfying Einstein on the Beach, have been symphonically textured spectacles, bloated with theatrical ambition, if not always pregnant with meaning.

His new work, I Was Sitting On My Patio This Guy Appeared I Thought I Was Hallucinating is a deflation and a consolidation, a rather modest chamber piece. But it represents a critical development in Wilson’s art and a salutary departure from once-outstanding theatrical inventions which have since become mannered conventions on the verge of cliché (Einstein on the Beach was a sumptuous piece of show business, most notable for the talents and individual contributions of the collaborating artists, but unfortunate as a caricature of the best and worst of Wilson’s spectacle style—for this it was applauded most by those least familiar with his earlier work). Rigorous in concept, compact in structure, and introspective in mood, the new work is lean and spare in staging (portability may have become a practical, thus esthetic consideration) and closer in spirit to post-Minimalist interests and strategies of certain visual and performance artists.

The work consists of two 45-minute modular performances, with roughly the same sparse, black and white, hypermodern ’30s-style set—an aluminum bench, a table, a telephone, a plexiglass shelf. Looking like sleek, high-fashion manikins, first Wilson, then Lucinda Childs offer equally but differently impenetrable interpretations of a non-sequitur soliloquy written by Wilson. Their individuality as performers is set in high relief by the circumstantial samenesses—Wilson is brooding, erratic, introverted, Childs outgoing, dramatic, active. And their verbal utterances—a memory’s detritus of some traumatic episode—imprint different key fragments on the viewer’s mind from act to act, so that one remains uncertain as to whether, in fact, the same text has been recited.

In each case, in each act, it is the performers’ respective movements, postures, gestures, and other choreographic punctuations which stir the viewer’s mind to gestalt projections of meaning from what is, ultimately, a Rorschach of a text. This process is abetted by the actual projection of recurrent images and sentences on a screen hung from the proscenium arch (different visual motifs recur in each act—in Wilson’s penguins, in Childs’ ducks, among other images, with shots of a dog on a bed by a telephone reappearing in both acts).

Such a use of film might be thought of as an analogue of the memory or dream mechanism itself, as latent subconscious fragments projected by the mind unpredictably converge with the manifest “stage business” of life. In any case, the screen and stage represent two autonomous systems which are mutually referential; meaning becomes a matter of chance, with disparate coincidences of intelligibility in each act. Like two subtly different panels in a Brice Marden diptych, the two acts in Wilson’s play echo one another’s samenesses and differences.

Some kind of Law of Simultaneity of Contrasts, applied to events in time, the colorings of experience, as it were, seems to be at work here. At any rate, Wilson is certainly working out a new logic, a kind of “deductive structuring” (as the term has been used to elucidate some Minimalist art) for a new kind of conceptual theater. Doing without his stock-in-trade of elaborate props, fanciful costumes, and monumental sets, he instead allows film images and acoustical intrusions (often of an electrified voice, reminiscent of the unseen narrator in Richard Foreman’s plays) to function as dematerialized psychic events. This suggests an entirely new interiorized direction for him, whereas in earlier works such visual and acoustical packages would have been substantiated as parcels of the spectacle. One senses Wilson moving closer to the techniques of such intermedia performance artists as Laurie Anderson, Joanne Kelly (with video) and Yvonne Rainer.

In watching Wilson’s new work, the conscious mind is unable rationally to reconcile the fragmentation of text and images with the highly concentrated, consistent, seemingly rationally motivated, though bizarre, performances. The effect is to “de-center” attention and depress perception to a threshold of subconsciousness where awareness of samenesses and differences pre-verbally stirs. The viewer’s mind becomes an inchoate intellect, observing something like its own process of making meaning and forming language. In its conceptually compact binary form, essentially one idea in two acts, Wilson’s play investigates through this disintegrative method a most unstable epistemological symmetry—the knowledge of Self and Other. I Was Sitting On My Patio This Guy Appeared I Thought I Was Hallucinating is profoundly boring and intensely fascinating . . . very likely Wilson’s most important theatrical experiment.

Richard Lorber