by Lynn on June 9, 2012

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, until June 10. Music and lyrics by Philip Glass. Direction, set and lighting design by Robert Wilson. Choreography by Lucinda Childs. Starring: Helga Davis, Samuel M. Johnson, Christopher Knowles, Jennifer Koh, Kate Moran, Jasper Newell, Charles Williams.

Einstein on the Beach, an opera in four acts by Robert Wilson and Philip Glass, has been called a theatrical, musical masterpiece of the 20th century, yet it has been performed only a few times since it was first done in 1976. At four hours and twenty minutes without an intermission it is a huge undertaking for both performer and audience. The audience is invited to come and go as needed, but it’s hoped they will stay put and watch and listen.

There is no story and some of the repeated dialogue makes no sense, dare one say, it sounds like stream of consciousness nonsense. There is one direct reference to Einstein—a projected photograph of him as a young man in 1903 in Switzerland, but the piece is full of subtle references to him. The reference to the beach is a repeated speech by a woman who sees a lot of bathing caps in a store which reminds her of the beach.

Philip Glass has called his music ‘progressive’ in Einstein in the Beach. He has created sounds in repeated patterns, sometimes changing slightly with each repetition. Or it’s music that repeats and repeats. It accompanies scenes either with actors or singers, who in turn repeat movement or sounds. Even Lucinda Child’s two elegant dance segments repeat simple patterns in what seems like an endless loop.

Except for the dance pieces, the actual movement of performers in scenes is in slow motion. In the scene called “Train” we watch a train enter from the wings so slowly it seems to move in millimetres. Or in the scene called “Bed” we watch a bed on the floor with its side brightly lit in white light rise, also in millimetres, until it is perpendicular, then just as slowly it rises up into the flies. All we see is that shaft of white light because the rest of the bed is in darkness. This simple movement, done while Hai-Ting Chinn sings what seems to be variations on scales, is mesmerizing in a strange way.

After four scenes of slow motion, repeated movement and sound/music, it is tempting to dismiss Einstein on the Beach as so much pretention. That would do this piece a disservice and I realized it in the scene called “Night Train”. A sliver of a moon is suspended above the stage. A man and a woman (Gregory R. Purnhagen and Helga Davis) in formal attire stand at the back of a small train—is it a caboose—perhaps. Two singers (Lisa Bielawa, and Philip Anderson) are heard as the couple on the train interact. Does the couple know each other? They seem separate. At one point they do look at each other. They draw closer. They embrace. They separate and she goes through a door to stand inside the train. He checks something in his vest pocket. I assume it might be a ring but am not sure. She comes back. More looks to each other. Then slowly she raises her left hand and points something at him. It’s a gun. And she smiles. I notice that the sliver of a moon is now filling out. By the end of the scene it will be full. This little vignette has taken place in one month.

There is such subtlety in the scene. You almost don’t notice that moon. In other scenes light will travel slowly across the sky, almost imperceptible. All you need is to be startled aware just once and you begin looking and listening harder. The entire piece of Einstein on the Beach is full of wit, whimsy, impish humour, beauty, elegance and startling surprises, if one is receptive to it.

Robert Wilson’s direction, set and its various components is like a work of art made all the more effective by his evocative, provocative lighting. One can see where Robert Lepage came from by watching Robert Wilson’s work.

Wilson and Glass have created a towering work from its images, sounds and subtle references. Even the stage hands who move the furniture are directed to move and act in a stylized way. The skill, patience, focus and commitment to the piece is obvious in every single artist involved.

This is a huge accomplishment and not one second is wasted. Don’t miss this.

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1 N. June 12, 2012 at 2:16 am

… It’s been 1905 … And delighting !