A Week's Run May Be Just One Performance for Robert Wilson, Whose Stage Epics Have Everything from A to Zzz

updated 12/15/1986 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/15/1986 01:00AM

He may be the first genuine super-showman of the obscure; if not that, Robert Wilson is certainly something or other hot and original, if not brand new. (It should be noted early that Wilson makes the simple declarative sentence feel like a thing of the past.) In the last 10 years, Wilson, 45, has presented at least one epic-length work every year. He has mounted productions costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, directed small armies of actors and animals, attracted sellout crowds all around the world and earned raves from such disparate publications as the Village Voice and the Wall Street Journal. Yet just what it is that Wilson does remains open to wild debate. He calls his works operas or plays, but most have no plot whatsoever: They consist of slow-moving images and seemingly unrelated music and sounds. In one of his scenes, a horizontal beam of light moves almost imperceptibly to the hypnotic accompaniment of an electronic score by Philip Glass; in another work, actors manipulate large white blocks to form a tree, a boat or a book while a man delivers a comic monologue about groceries, written by David Byrne. KA MOUNTAIN AND GUARDenia TERRACE, staged on a sweltering mountainside in Iran in 1972, lasted seven days and nights without interruption. A year later The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin employed 144 untrained actors (32 of them dressed as ostriches) who performed for 12 hours a night.

If you want to know what any of this means, the author is the last person you should ask. "Most theater tells you what to think," says Wilson, who doesn't mind if viewers doze off or daydream—as they do. "My work should be seen as poetry. I ask the audience: 'What is the point?' " According to critics, Wilson expands the scope of theater. "He is an explorer in space and time," says Mel Gussow of the New York Times.

Twenty years after Wilson began presenting puzzling performances to tiny crowds in New York City lofts and basements, his style still looks and sounds remarkably revolutionary. But Wilson no longer qualifies as an oddball outsider. The works he concocts and directs are constantly in performance here and abroad; the Knee Plays, which the Los Angeles Times called "charming" and "tantalizing," starts the second leg of its U.S. tour next spring. Wilson personally scrutinizes every detail of his intricate shows and even designs the stage furnishings. In Stuttgart, West Germany last month to present Gluck's 18th-century opera Alceste, he drilled one actress for five minutes until she could move her hand without casting a shadow.

Such uncompromising care doesn't always lead to success. At a Copenhagen performance of Wilson's Stalin in the '70s, one actor suddenly noticed that the entire audience had walked out. Wilson failed on a grander scale when he couldn't raise the $2 million or so he needed to present his 12-hour, 12-language the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down at the 1984 Olympics. Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize this year, warS has never been performed in its entirety. In fact Wilson may never raise enough money to put on the work, which was planned and rehearsed at six locations around the world. Still, his fans can see parts of it. The touring Knee Plays are 13 interludes that connect the larger segments of the CIVIL warS. Another warS excerpt, the two-and-a-half-hour Rome Section, will open Dec. 14 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

When asked to explain his creations, Wilson resists giving a clear answer. "I believe in presenting a text instead of interpreting it," he says. He claims his performances resemble dance more than theater, and cites the timing of Jack Benny and Buster Keaton as influences. "Bob likes to leave mysteries," says Robert Stearns, a director at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where Wilson developed the Knee Plays. "Sometimes he's very lucid, but not if he's wrapped up in other things." At work, Wilson relies on devoted assistants who tiptoe when he wants quiet, handle his laundry and even remind him of yesterday's ideas.

Because Wilson dodges personal questions, his life story is almost as vague as his productions. The son of a lawyer, he grew up in Waco, Texas, where he staged plays in the garage. He suffered from a bad stutter until he was 17, when he lost the impediment with help from a movement-and-dance teacher, Byrd Hoffman. "She taught him to slow himself down in order to communicate," says Stearns. "He has extended that idea to his works." After a few years as a business major at the University of Texas at Austin, Wilson moved to New York to study painting and architecture at the Pratt Institute. At the same time, he began to teach children—and later, elderly people and housewives—the movement techniques derived from his work with Hoffman. Some of Wilson's students became part of his Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds, a communal-style theater group whose partly silent Deafman Glance became his first international hit, in 1971. Music has since become prominent in his creations; Einstein on the Beach, a 1976 collaboration with Glass, is his biggest success.

Wilson's audiences typically react in a wide variety of ways. Some snore, others go out for snacks, some whisper to each other, some appear to be thinking of something else, and a few stare at every shadow and light on the stage as though hypnotized. But no one has ever responded quite the way Wilson himself did last month. After a successful rehearsal of Alceste, the author's verdict piped up out of the dark theater. "Boom," Wilson called, letting his voice echo in the silent room. Then he repeated, "Boom." In Robert Wilson's special language, that seemed to say it all.

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