Friday, September 21, 2012

Onstage at BAM: "Einstein on the Beach"

Einstein on the Beach
Music and lyrics by Philip Glass
Choreography and text by Lucinda Childs
Directed by Robert Wilson
Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY
September 14-23, 2012
Koh (left) as Einstein (photo: Stephanie Berger)
Einstein on the Beach, Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's famous collaboration, was considered back in 1976 as a landmark of some sort: after sitting through its latest incarnation at BAM, I still don't know what sort.

If composer Glass and director Wilson hadn't continued in the same minimalist vein for the ensuing 36 years of their careers, I would have thought that Einstein was an elaborate joke on the audience. But this endless procession of disjointed, pointless scenes under a nonsensical title is, in its way, a perfect snapshot of two artists who have never moved forward, leaning on the same familiar aural and visual tropes to reassure their audiences.

It's done with undeniable cleverness: music, words, movement and visuals are so simplistic—indeed, simple-minded—that audience members can read what they want to them. The opening “Knee Plays” has gems of verbiage as the numbers 1 through 10 (and others) repeated ad nauseum. Christopher Knowles' text reaches its unintended apogee with “So this could be reflections for/Christopher Knowles-John Lennon/Paul McCartney-George Harrison.” What I wouldn't have given to hear actual Beatles' songs, even “Revolution 9”!

Lucinda Childs' choreography would be more impressive if everything wasn't repeated to distraction: obviously some consider this hypnotic, but it was a narcotic to me. Glass's music is equally distinctive, if only because it drones on and on: who else would claim it as his own? I must mention the performance of violinist Jennifer Koh as Einstein, old-man wig and makeup intact (she alternated with Antoine Silverman), playing the same Glass notes again and again in a formidable display of technique. But there's no soul to this music.

Wilson's directing most recently reared its head with an abominable Threepenny Opera at BAM last fall: with his arbitrary movements and glacial pacing intact, there's no doubt he has a recognizable style. But there's no soul to it, and Einstein on the Beach remains a cipher that lasts an interminable 4-1/2 hours.

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