New York

Robert Wilson

Loosely based on H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Robert Wilson and Lou Reed’s romantic Time Rocker tells the story of the wayward Dr. Procopious, who takes off on a journey from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century and back again pursued by the young lovers Nick and Priscilla. Constructed of thirty pristine scenes with original music, it is a remarkable demonstration of the power of sound to imprint pictures in the mind, and for pictures to be truly heard. Indeed, the aftereffects of this production may well be its true measure; an instant classic by Reed, “Turning Time Around,” keeps the image of its scene alive so that hearing it months later one immediately sees the lovers dangling upside down, rotating slowly in the air; or picture the stage saturated in blood red, a glowing box at its center throwing off an intense white light that silhouettes Priscilla in a bustled dress, and the opening chords of “Talking Book” begin to play. Music also connects the various time zones, replacing the short “knee play” interludes that linked Wilson’s splendid landscapes in the past; as the white skeleton of a large fish carries the suspended couple through time across a brilliant blue stage, Reed’s wailing guitar chords stretch like elastic bands to hold the parts together.

There are some surprises to Time Rocker, one of them being the sweetness of this production, a love story, which contrasts sharply with the detached edginess associated with both Wilson and Reed. Another is that one might find fault with the text, a criticism that would seem superfluous, even oxymoronic, to a piece by Robert Wilson, for whom narrative has always been beside the point. Or so it seemed until this bare-boned libretto, written by Darryl Pinckney, opened with a memorable line, “Not all journeys begin with a suitcase,” and then floundered. That it did so little to advance the production served to show how more powerful librettos influenced Wilson’s direction of The Black Rider and Alice, the first two works in a trilogy (which Time Rocker completes) created for Hamburg’s talented Thalia Theater actors. Reed’s lyrics, reflecting his ironic wisdom, helped compensate for this shortcoming. Textual problems notwithstanding, the rock-’n’-roll undertow of the music and the high contrast of Wilson’s pictures, boxed and glowing from behind like the screen of a brand-new television set, resulted in an entirely lovable rock opera.

Wilson’s ideal of presenting the trilogy as an all-nighter (at a total of eight hours of performance), would, if realized, have little to do with his groundbreaking all-nighters of the ’70s, in which he propelled his audiences into surreal sleepless states with works of extreme slow motion. But it would make for a fascinating reading of the work he has created for these actors, with their easy physicality and bold expressionism, and of the director’s treatment of theatrical styles ranging from late nineteenth-century Europe (including Victorian vaudeville staged in close-up action) to late-twentieth-century America (his CinemaScopic stagescapes set with still figures at a distance). With some deft editing (Time Rocker’s scene in which bare-torsoed figures cross a misty stage, for example, could easily be sacrificed), these collaborations between Wilson and three of America’s grittiest raconteurs—Reed, Tom Waits, and William S. Burroughs—should make up a marvelous affair.

RoseLee Goldberg