New York

Ann Wilson

88 Pine Street

Good ingredients do not necessarily make good theater, and that is the pitfall of productions like Ann Wilson’s Butler’s Lives of the Saints. Wilson has taken the music, art and writing of the creative world’s “saints” and strung them together into a ponderously serious and plodding presentation. Everyone from Ovid to Shakespeare to Emily Dickinson, Simone Weil and the Bible’s anonymous authors is rightfully admired by Wilson and probably deserving of some form of theatrically produced homage. But a production staged along confusing, ambiguous lines with no discernible structure is not the proper vehicle for such a tribute.

Wilson manages to take all of the humor and most of the compassion and sincerity out of some of the world’s greatest literature by presenting stark readings done in school-boy recitation style—stage center, face front and rigid, monotonous chant. Of course, stilted unembellished delivery can be used effectively in theater. But it is one of the most difficult styles to do well and Wilson’s troupes did not do it well. Similarly, highlights of the world’s greatest music were competently sung and performed by the singers and musicians, but in a context that left each piece high and dry, bereft of the surroundings of opera-opulent stage sets, the sanctity of the church or the comfort of the concert hall. And none of those would have been missed had they been replaced by a reasonably creative substitute; what was most sadly missed was any cohesive atmosphere created by Wilson herself. In short, she presented a kind of anthology of the arts in the patchy style of budget records—“Hits of the Centuries” would have been a more appropriate title.

If only Robert Wilson hadn’t shown the way with Einstein on the Beach or Meredith Monk with Quarry; then Ann Wilson might have had an excuse for inferior staging. But so much of her production was reminiscent of those greatly superior productions that comparison is unavoidable and hugely unfavorable. Though reputedly organized along the lines of classical Greek drama and the No Theater of Japan, there was less feeling of classical purity and more of stark monotony to her presentation. Unlike Einstein, structure was not a self-contained forceful presence, and “theater” director Sheryl Sutton (an Einstein veteran) seems to have learned less than she might have of the avant-garde performance. Dancers, chorus and actors moved on- and offstage as necessary, but with no grace or imagination. One has only to think of the stunning processional/recessionals in Quarry to regret the missed chances in this performance: Monk’s troop of players moving with planned, effective motion, while carrying the drone of the music to eerie, unsettling layers of sound. Throughout, Monk merged the necessary entrances and exits with the narrative movement of the piece. In this way both Einstein and Quarry carried overwhelming connotations and references to classical theater and primitive rite, while simultaneously creating a modern replacement.

The Greek chorus as a staging device was given new interpretation in both Einstein and Quarry; effectively used to echo a dramatic moment or to further the action, remaining objective whether removed from or merging with the players, playing with concepts of time and identity. Traditionally the chorus has been able to change roles, knowing the future, predicting, warning, moving in and out of the past, present and future around the stupidity and human limits of the “characters.” Since Wilson’s Lives illustrated a narrative line known only to Wilson, the chorus was never utilized in any comparably dramatic way. Strolling from right to left hardly equals real movement in terms of dramatic force.

Such missed opportunities pervaded the performance. It’s almost inconceivable that Andrew deGroat’s feverish and energizing choreography could be misused—but Wilson came close. Only once was dancing merged with narrative, and that small moment of a spinning Victorian lady throwing off random words was one of the few complete actions in the presentation. Playing the dance as illustrative of the recited text was a simple and direct example of quietly effective theater. But such a moment of calmly integrated elements was rare in the performance, and represents the difficulty of combining an overload of material into a cohesive unit. Wilson started with the overwhelming task of presenting numerous and diverse literatures: along with poetry, drama and philosophy she elected to present a similarly overwhelming amount of music. And to top it all off, she proposed that the sets themselves be equally important, combining Gordon Craig’s beautifully Minimal Hamlet screens with a 3-D reconstruction of a Van Gogh painting, five painted scrims and a Diaghilev-designed room from the ballet Petrouchka. For anyone to pull off such a superhuman feat would have been a landmark achievement. How much more satisfying it would have been to see even one part of this huge project realized with simple direct authority. Instead we are given a massive sampling of tantalizing material in a context of what might have been.

Deborah Perlberg