Almost 2 weeks ago I caught Robert Wilson’s production of “Lulu” at the Theatre de la Ville. Originally produced by Brecht’s theater, the Berliner Ensemble, “Lulu” played in Paris as part of the Festival Automne. Another Wilson/ Berliner Ensemble production, “Threepenny Opera”, had played in New York earlier this fall.
I saw “Einstein on the Beach” when I first moved to New York in 1984 – and that was a revival. Robert Wilson – one the late 20th century’s most celebrated ‘post-modern’ directors – shows no signs of slowing down. However, unlike his earlier works, where a series of very slow moving surreal tableau have sometimes frustratingly mysterious and elliptic meanings, his collaborations with the German group are of established texts and performed, more or less, as written.
Music has always been integral to Wilson – Phillip Glass’ hypnotic repetitions provided the score for “Einstein”. With “Lulu” Wilson has turned to quite a different flavor with Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground. The score ranged from guitar screeches, that underlined dramatic flourishes, to jaunty simple rock melodies set with simple lyrics.
Wilson’s visual imagery hasn’t changed much over the last 30 years and, even though he has been much imitated, they still seem fresh. My understanding is that all of his shows are timed and staged to the millisecond. His actors were almost frozen zombies in the past. Here, they are full-blooded, dramatic and delightfully strange. I am frankly in awe of these German actors.
In his notes, Wilson said he was as much inspired by the silent movie by Pabst starring Louise Brooks, as the original Wedekind play. The cast had white faces and the setting and clothes were nearly black and white – with occasional touches of acid green or blood red. In the film, updated to the then-contemporary 1920s, the beautiful bobbed Brooks Charlestons her way through the beds and hearts of a variety of men (and one fascinating lesbian) before she dies at the hands of Jack the Ripper.
Onstage, this last scene was the most stunning to me. While Lulu entertains a series of ‘johns’ – having now resorted to selling sex outright to survive – her former conquests sit in a sepulcher portrait upstage, each face gently lit by a ghastly green pin spot. Although Robert Wilson’s images are sometimes jaw dropping and strange they are never superficial. As he is a Waco, Texas native, I feel a special kinship with him. Waco is also the birthplace of the equally strange filmmaker Terrance Malick, tony-award wining actress Rondi Reed, the soft drinks Dr. Pepper and Big Red, and the setting for the self-immolating David Koresh, I have wondered what is in the sulfuric-tasting water of that otherwise painfully ordinary American city/ town.
Last weekend I jumped across the pond to visit my partner in New York and participate in a workshop with Elevator Repair Service – another ‘post-modern’ troupe but more in the ‘Wooster-Group-vein’ than the sleek austerity of Wilson. They are most famous these days for presenting classic books in hip, gently-ironic, and very long productions – most notably the entire text to “The Great Gatsby” (clocking in at 7 hours). Along with the 3 recent ‘literary’ productions, I had seen them years ago at PS 122 and was impressed by their mix of sound effects, quirky observations and Bollywood dance breaks. My boyfriend at the time gave them glowing reviews in Art Forum partly due to my positive response so I feel a little responsible for their success.
On Saturday and Sunday 20 of us worked on a small section of Earnest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” – which ERS has been performing for the last 2 years. We brought in random video clips and, after introductions and a warmup, we divided into 3 groups and incorporated elements and movements from our videos, as well as a dance taught to us inspired by a clip of the Alcorn College Drill team in Mississippi.
None of these interpolations had anything to do with Hemingway’s book – which was precisely the point. ERS creates work that tosses disparate ingredients into a charming salad of heartfelt passion and ironic gestures. They seem most fond of the awkward gestures of untrained performers – something we gleefully supplied. By the end of Sunday we had combined the 3 improvisations into a very curious version of the fiesta of Pamplona from the book.
On the long trip back to Paris I pondered about how far their zany devices are from the Lecoq’s School’s narrow rules! Robert Wilson might approve of their irony but not of their mess. All 3 share one core idea – you should always do something, you have to move the action forward. A performance dies when it sits back and tries to analyze what the hell it is doing.