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Robert Wilson/Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach
Photograph: Lucie Jansch Production still from the 2012/13 revival of Robert Wilson/Philip Glass collaboration Einstein on the Beach

Theater review: Einstein on the Beach

Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's operatic dance-theater masterwork returns to BAM to dazzle our senses.

By Helen Shaw

BAM Howard Gilman Opera House. Created and directed by Robert Wilson. Music by Philip Glass. Choreography by Lucinda Childs. With ensemble cast. 4 hrs 25mins. No intermission.

It's necessary, sometimes, to separate one's reactions to Robert Wilson and Philip Glass's non-narrative four-and-a-half-hour behemoth Einstein on the Beach into the experience's quantifiable units. As your own sense of time dilates under the piece's glacial pacing, you evaluate your every uptick (or downtick) in interest, boredom or distress, and you find yourself drawing long, associative fractals out of the least mental stimulus. It's a strange mind-set to maintain for so long, but Beach encourages phenomenological granulation. You even spend time observing yourself observing, standing coolly back from your own excitement about this last-in-a-lifetime revival and your tricky, layered responses to something so historically significant. But the hope is always that eventually gravity will take you, that the 36-year-old opera with its famous, sawing arpeggios and murmuring numbers will operate upon you as a whole thing. And happily, at times, it does—and when that happens at long last, it's like atoms colliding, stars exploding and civilization dropping into the sea.

No one, but no one, can design in quite Wilson's way. A rolling floor of fog parts before a painted train, a courtroom divides itself in half, a papery wall tears away to show us Kate Moran sitting on a chair, lost in a green light. These tableaux are sometimes more effective and communicative than a poetic scene (a couple wooing on a caboose platform); sometimes they stay deliberately shut away from our understanding, like Zen koans. Between these acts, Moran and Helga Davis perform the “knee plays,” shorter units tidily contained in a grey square very close to the lip of the stage. They and the chorus wear white shirts and suspenders, ready for a bit of ’50s sock hopping—but they choose instead to murmur Christopher Knowles poetry, chant numbers at random and twiddle invisible wires on a nonexistent telephone exchange.

Roughly speaking, the images amount to quasidramaturgy: We see a miniature rocket, an approaching UFO, Einstein (Jennifer Koh) playing the violin, a variety of scientists lost in thought, a vast Metropolis-esque computing interior, a diagram of the atom bomb. An underlying mathematic structure is hinted at, then blown up in a terrifying maelstrom of Glassian sound.

Some of this is beautiful. But some is not beautiful or even very good, like the two Samuel M. Johnson–penned monologues (delivered sonorously by Charles Williams). Some dated bits—like a dancer doing Sprockets-style wiggling in a black turtleneck—now actually seem more like the spoofs  than anything else. So it isn't perfect; it's sometimes slightly silly. In addition, much of what made Einstein on the Beach so seismically important has now settled and shifted, adjusting to Wilson's chosen topography. Einstein has gone into the drinking water now. Then why go? Because when it strikes, it's a meteor. The two "Field Dances" by Lucinda Childs are Pythagorean, ecstatic, sliding hymns to geometry. The final act ("Spaceship") joins design, movement and noise-music into a complete experience of overwhelming terror. After hours of fragmentation, of atomized experiences and tense, intellectualized responses, there suddenly come a few moments that claw beneath our lizard brains to affect us as myths do. The whole tragedy of these instances is that I cannot describe them. You will have to see them for yourselves.

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