Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Why I'm Not Always a Big Robert Wilson Fan

It's hard to know how exactly to criticize a "re-imagined" production of a classic stage work. Just saying that it doesn't look like the writer intended, or even that the setting and action contradict what is said in the text, isn't enough (though I actually think more directors should consider re-writing the text a bit to fit the updated stagings). I used to think it was enough, but I now think it's the equivalent of looking at a painting and complaining that it doesn't look like whatever it's supposed to be.

So when somebody like Robert Wilson does his number on a 19th-century theatre work, I have to resist the urge to just be annoyed with what he's doing. The piece will survive, and anyone who wants to put on a more traditional production can do so, so everything's basically fine. And sometimes an unusual, non-traditional approach can illuminate things about the work that would get lost in a traditional staging, or that we would take for granted. There may be ways for the director to get at the same things without completely changing the story, but if the director finds that this is the best way to call our attention to something we've missed, then his vision of the piece may be more true and authentic than a boring traditional staging. (If an updated setting confronts us with themes that are inherent in the piece, then it's essentially true to the piece; if a traditional staging focuses our attention on nothing except the pretty sets and costumes, then it's essentially inauthentic.)

Still, when I see some of the things what Wilson did with Der Freisch├╝tz, I can't help but feel he's missing the point -- not always, but sometimes. This is a 19th-century stage work that could definitely be brought closer to us (it's the ultimate German story of pure maidens and supernatural foofaraw, has never been popular outside Germany, and probably isn't all that popular even in Germany by now), but some of the parts I've seen seem to feature Wilson working against the music, or any but the most obvious musical/rhythmic cues. Here's his staging of the most famous number, the hunters' chorus, one of the catchiest chorus tunes ever written and almost irresistible even if you don't like opera. (Period horns appear to have been used for this production, which is a good idea; the old-style horns work very well in this sort of number.)

Now, there's no reason a director needs to do exactly what the text calls for -- in this case, a bunch of jolly guys in hunting costumes celebrating the wonderfulness of hunting would simply not make any connection with a modern audience. That's not what bothers me, and what bothers me is not the stylized sets, costumes and movement. What bothers me is that I feel like the staging seems kind of pointless. So they're standing still, and then they move rhythmically during the refrain, and then they stand still again, and I feel like Wilson's use of movement is just making rhythmic points that is already made by the music. He does this in other numbers too, especially the comedy numbers: characters cross their arms and do rhythmic steps and other movements in time with the music, and it's as if he's mistaken this for a ballet. What the point of the number is, dramatically or thematically, seems like a mystery to me.

But, as I said, a modern (I guess it's no longer that modern, but you know what I mean) directorial approach can sometimes pay dividends, and I think Wilson's style does pay off at some moments. In the more dramatic numbers, and especially the famous act 2 finale (one of the first supernatural horror stories on the musical stage), he lets up a bit on the fake ballet moves and uses the modern tools of stagecraft -- lighting, color, moving scenery -- to convey the spooky atmosphere of the scene more effectively than you could do with a traditional staging. (Having the devil's dialogue -- he's a dialogue-only character, interestingly -- echo is also a sensible, if very theatrically traditional, idea.) So as I said, I'm not opposed to re-thinking an old stage work, just that I like to get the feeling that there's a reason for it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting-- personally I loved his "black rider" , written by Burroughs and Tom waits. One of the most unusual, invigorating, beautiful, surprising, frustrating, and memorable nights I have had at the theater. Though the other half of the audience (the ones who walked out) clearly disagreed. It's an imaginative retelling of der freischutz. Interesting to see Wilson tackle essentially the same story twice with different scripts and music.