Einstein on the Beach

A widely considered masterpiece of avant-guarde theater returns to New York before setting out on an international tour.

Robert Wilson

Einstein on the Beach

City: Brooklyn
Venue: Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM)

A major aim of the four and a half hour long Einstein on the Beach is to give the effect of time becoming inconsequential. As the avant-guarde, Robert Wilson-directed opera moves hypnotically from sequence to sequence, the combination of Lucinda Childs' idiosyncratic choreography, beautiful analog sounds courtesy of the Philip Glass ensemble, and repetition of the performance's every facet risks imposing a state of disorientation upon those assembled. As to be expected from an avant-guarde opera, plot is scant, although Einstein references are plentiful. It is for all these reasons that Einstein on the Beach asks of its audience a major commitment: to fully experience the event, you must forget everything beyond the theater and pledge to becoming fully engrossed in the spectacle.

Although New York is the only city included in Einstein on the Beach's international tour to have hosted previous productions of the opera, this is the first full staging the Brooklyn Academy has seen since 1992. As a mercy for some and out of the question for others, audience members are invited to come and go as they please through the course of the event. On the final Friday evening of Einstein’s run at BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House, the audience stayed predominantly rapt, with a row or two of vacated seats appearing sporadically.

The look and verbal content of the 2012 rendition of Einstein on the Beach remains faithful to its 1976 form, but its overall effect is relatively timeless. Sets are mostly stark in nature, with crisp grays and whites featuring extensively. The continuing visual motif of a train is majestic; a glowing white bed, modernist. Acts are complimented by what Wilson calls "knee plays," brief interludes in which curtains are drawn and a small square of light focuses on one or two performers. The opening knee play, which appears to already be in progress before the performance even begins, gives audiences their first taste of autistic writer Christopher Knowles' seemingly dense texts (Childs also wrote a few spoken word passages), combinations of pop culture references and big themes such as love.

The movement of each performer on stage throughout the acts and scenes is striking, yet never distracting. Rather than a spectator being puzzled as to who they should focus on, the movements compliment a viewer’s eyes scanning across the stage. As is Wilson’s aim, the audience need only focus on what appeals to them. At times, nightmarish facial expressions and sudden transitions from measured to swift movements—not to mention the sparseness of dialogue—has the effect of a silent film. There are also a few moments when performers setting foot across the stage recall Monty Python's "Ministry of Silly Walks" sketch. However, these associations are brilliantly countered by the opera's "Field" scenes, where the lighting grows pastel and dancers flutter and frolic artfully.

With the level of talent behind Einstein on the Beach, the performers themselves risk being overlooked. Kate Moran, who assumes many roles originally taken on by Childs, is a key player among many talents. In the trial scene that opens Act III, Moran repeats an anecdote about looking at bathing caps in a supermarket and realizing through this that she had been avoiding the beach. She recites these sentences first while laying on the glowing bed, then slowly rising, and finally through a few costume changes before drifting off stage. The equally impressive Helga Davis repeats Moran's movements while reciting a similarly perplexing tract. Both women never give any clue that they are actually not sleepwalking.

In the most apparent nod to Einstein himself, a bushy haired and bearded violinist appears intermittently to play a gorgeous solo. The two soloists--Jennifer Koh on some dates and Antoine Silverman on others--are potentially faced with greater scrutiny than the rest of the cast. Although the choice of Koh has been particularly heralded in the press, Silverman played outstandingly at the Friday night performance. Einstein's players are refreshingly diverse overall, spanning ages and races, including in its scope a little boy played by Jasper Newell; his contemplation of a glowing cube in the opera’s first scene generates subtle suspense. Chorus member Tomas Cruz--who appears in the same scene--also deserves a mention, not merely for being the only person on stage in color (he appears in a red satin jacket); his simultaneously wistful and startling facial expressions are as memorable as any of the sets or dancers.

Given Wilson’s advancing age--he will be 70 in October--and the amount of time that has passed since Einstein on the Beach was last performed, it is uncertain whether the opera will ever again be produced under the direction of its three collaborators. Spending nearly five hours taking in a largely incomprehensible piece of art is not the first thing many people of today would choose to do. Although impenetrable at times, it is a rare treat to see such a fine culmination of three American masters’greatest talents. Luckily New Yorkers aren’t the only ones privy to such a thing this time around.


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