New York

Robert Wilson and David Byrne, the Knee Plays

Alice Tully Hall

The Knee Plays, a collaborative mixed media opera, almost effortlessly achieved the kind of successful melding of theatrical elements that most other such performances strain for. Its 13 scenes were originally planned as individual entr’actes between scene changes within the five long sections (each virtually an entire piece in itself) of the CIVIL warS, Robert Wilson’s global performance opera. Like all of Wilson’s architecturally interwoven visual stagework, the design motifs in each “knee play” were supposed to introduce the scene that each vignette preceded (the term comes from vaudeville, referring to the “joints”—short skits_between the big acts). Pulled out of the twice-aborted grand production and combined to make an ad hoc “American Section” of the opera, the Knee Plays surprisingly congealed into a coherent, satisfying performance on its own terms. Although not as profoundly mysterious as Wilson’s large-scale pieces, the production also avoided the occasional portentousness of Wilson’s huge epics by concentrating on understated dramas of faux naïf surprise. The Knee Plays was an easy chair of performance pleasure, an often whimsically humorous, live-action pop-up book of a show that still carried the significant weight of Wilson’s radical theater ideas, but in a lightly buoyant way new to Wilson’s work.

Wilson’s principal conceit, that of putting forward the usually secondary elements of theater—lighting, decor, props—as the principal subject of his dramas, continued as the Knee Plays’ modus operandi. Developed from his architectonic drawings, the playlets’ central “characters” were the toylike objects on stage; principal among these were a tree, a boat, a bird, and a puppet. The “story” was the unfolding of their multiple physical transformations accomplished by a squad of stagehand-like performers. Created in Japan, the Knee Plays conflated several performance modes into this typically Wilsonian method: Wilson’s brand of minimalist spectacle; choreographer Suzushi Hanayagi’s background in Kabuki and the Judson Dance Theater; and composer David Byrne’s reworking of musical genres—here, of New Orleans marching band music—and fondness for non sequitur texts. The objects reflected these overlapping styles in their physical makeup. Constructed mainly of interlocking cubes of corrugated board with muslin wrapping, in a design scheme of black and white (with elements of raw wood), they alluded to both the modular, mathematical vocabulary of American Minimalism and the architectural simplicity of Japanese design. So did the action—the dancers manipulated the objects with overtones of Bunraku reverence and Judson Dance Theater matter-of-factness, moving in gestures reminiscent of oriental gravity and silent-movie slapstick. The intermittently spoken text, which consisted of song lyric—like lines about travel, added a gloss of quirky wit to the graceful goings-on, as did Byrne’s bouncy pastiche of a musical score punctuated with ambient sound effects.

There was a trace narrative embedded in these visually singular scenes—a sort of condensed, mythic précis of civilization from the Tree of Life to Noah’s Ark, from Commodore Perry’s momentous arrival in Japan to the American Civil War—but the manifest meaning was secondary to their strikingly beautiful presentation. Some scenes were so transcendent within their short time spans that a consciousness-expanding dreaminess took over. When a large wooden bird “flew” across the stage to Byrne’s Brian Eno-esque sonic wash, when the rear backdrop filled up with brilliantly colored whirls of biomorphic shapes, when dancers “swam” through cinematic waves, the Knee Plays became a transporting spectacle of associative meanings. No performance artist is so adept at creating such moods as Wilson, and those of the Knee Plays were particularly evocative. Because these evanescent impressions were the result of a carefully calibrated interweaving of music, movement, design, and text, with a logical subtext that provided a sturdy ideational skeleton for their seductive flesh, they were not just beautiful.

John Howell