MAXIMUM ART IN MINIMALIST PLAYS

By Bernard Weiner, The San Francisco Chronicle, October 23, 1986

"The Knee Plays," the Robert Wilson/David Byrne collaboration that plays at 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall, is not for everyone. But those anxious to get a taste of the work of these two breakthrough artists will not come away disappointed.

Though there are parts of the 95-minute show that are just a bit too precious — the too-formalistic entrance of the musicians, for example — it's clear that we are witnessing serious work (though often quite droll) by two extremely important contemporary artists.

The piece is elaborated with Wilson's mix of Eastern and Western theater styles — American avant-garde, classical Japanese, modern dance, etc. — to Byrne's entrancing, hypnotic score, heavily influenced by New Orleans street-funeral music.

"the Knee Plays," which I caught last weekend on the Los Angeles leg of the show's national tour, were never designed to be performed together. They are the "joints" between the major segments of Wilson's epic, 12-hour, multi-media, multi-national spectacular, "CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down." These "knee plays" were intended to be presented one by one in front of the curtain while the large scenic elements of the epic were being put in place behind the curtain. In their minimalist way, they comment on the elaborate apocalyptic visions on the main stage.

But, inasmuch as "CIVIL warS" never has been produced in its entirety, and is not likely to be produced as a single entity in the foreseeable future (the costs are astronomical), Wilson agreed to the commission of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to put together the 13 segments of "the Knee Plays" and tour them as a unit, to a score by Byrne of the rock group Talking Heads.

Though not designed to be seen at one sitting, "the Knee Plays" do work as a single unit, with an abstract kind of story running through them, involving a tree, a boat, a book and representatives of mankind. They are atypical of Wilson's elaborate, spectacular style, being performed on a bare stage, for instance, and with simple, child-like props and set pieces.

 

MAXIMUM ART IN MINIMALIST PLAYS

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The program contains Wilson's storyboard scenario and drawings for the 13 segments, as an aid to the audience in following the images. You can read into them a variety of interpretations. I tend to see religious and political connotations: of personal and societal transformations, life out of death, spiritual and social evolution.

The program begins with a T-shaped tree (a cross?), made up of a grid of squares, and a copper-headed puppet of a man (in Eden? the Crucifixion?) in the air, being moved by several Bunraku-style manipulators. The man climbs down, but is chased back up by a lion (a dancer here: a weaker image). The man settles in the tree to read a book.

In the next section, a calamity occurs. Lighting strikes (the expulsion from the Garden? nuclear destruction?), and the tree slowly falls. The once solid structure atomizes, and the pieces scatter. Only a tiny square, projected on a slide, remains; that square will be seen many times during the evening. The actual square-grid "branches" are used to build a cabin.

In Knee Play 3, the people build an ark out of the cabin logs. Next, a large bird made of sticks — again, manipulated from below — takes the man from the boat and flies away. The boat is beached and people write graffiti on it, using colored flashlights; a slide projects colored patterns.

In Knee Plays 6 and 7, the boat is fired upon by a cannon and breaks up. The hull sinks and the cabin floats on, to land on the shores of Japan. There, Admiral Perry entertains a fisherman with a puppet show that suggests violence directed against the weaker Japanese figure.

In Knee Play 8, on projected film of water, the hull (on a projected slide) sinks. In Knee Play 9 — which seems to be the segment most dissociated from the others — a Japanese basket-seller picks up a piece of rice while his collection of wares dances.

In the final Knee Plays, 10-13, people pull the boat hull from the water during "the Civil War." There are army tents; next, in a jungle, people begin to read the writing on the hull, and a book is ingeniously assembled from the square-grid boat. This book is then taken from a library shelf by a man wearing a Buddha-like mask. He reads. A tree grows from the book.

 

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Hope? Enlightenment? Multi-national, multi-generational transformation? You pays your money, you takes your chance.

Even "the Knee Plays" have "knee plays." During the set-ups for the 13 segments, the dancers periodically emerge to engage in various floor exercises, all choreographed engagingly by Suzushi Hanayagi, usually to sounds suggesting industrial tasks.

Throughout all the digressions and segments, the David Byrne score — sometime on tape, but mostly live, interpreted by the excellent Les Misérables Brass Band […] lists of things in the future.

The fact that, for the most part, this narration seems to have little or nothing to do with what's happening onstage helps create a most interesting esthetic tension.

Byrne's fascinating score itself rests on languid but curiously insistent chordal cadences — a kind of urban jazz-chant — with heavy brass being the perfect form for its delivery.

Ultimately, even with its slower sections and built-in vagueness, these "knee plays" whet the appetite to see the entire Wilson opera, someday, somewhere, even at the risk of occasional irritation at his slow pacing. (At 95 minutes, "the Knee Plays" is a kind of Wilson lark.) To date, segments have been performed in Rotterdam, Rome, Minneapolis and Cologne. The Cologne segment also was done in Cambridge, Mass., last year, which led to Wilson's Pulitzer Prize nomination.

Wilson, working on the scale that he does and with concepts of his own devising, has forever altered the way the modern world perceives its theater, opera, dance and performance art. Here, in Berkeley, for two nights only, audiences are being given an opportunity to gain an insight, however minimal, into this major artist's unique esthetic.