at the Civic Theatre

The Knee Plays is a collaborative effort between Robert Wilson and David Byrne. In a word, it sucks. If you find the word sucks offensive or culturally reductive, you can have your pick of tedious, insipid, monotonous, uninspired, or pretentious. Scenario and direction are by Robert Wilson, who created the 12-hour epic, the CIVIL warS, from which The Knee Plays, the entr’acte entertainments, is excerpted. But I imagine the majority of the audience on opening night were drawn by Talking Heads’ David Byrne, who supplied the words and music. So let’s skip right to the main attraction.

I’ll tell you right off, even if it were available, you wouldn’t be running out to pick up the sound track to this show. Most of the music is as boring as a leaking faucet. I’d call it ponderous but that implies the element of thought. And it’s so doggedly boring that the leaking faucet becomes Chinese water torture. The only worthy piece, believe it or not, is an ersatz New Orleans jazz number. Yet, given the choice, I’d prefer sitting in the men’s room at Preservation Hall listening to the real thing. With all due respect to Byrne’s work with Talking Heads, he is certainly no Renaissance man, and he has a long way to go before he knows what to do with a brass band.

At least the music, horrible as it is, seems well suited to the play, which is also horrible. Byrne’s words, or text, or whatever you care to call the voice-over (noncommittally narrated by Matthew Buckingham) has nothing whatsoever to do with the play. One segment is about a woman deciding what to wear, another segment about the possible side effects of eating someone else’s groceries. So what’s that got to do with anything? If there’s a purpose here, it must be that language and meaning are being set aside in favor of something else, something deliberately obscure. One line, and only one line, sheds some light: “Being in the theater is more important than knowing what is going on in the movie.” Give me a break. It should go: Paying for the ticket is more important than being in the theater.

Before moving on to the major architect of this pain in the ass, a summary of Wilson’s scenario is in order. A puppet sits in a tree and reads a book. Later, the tree falls, breaks into blocks, and is reassembled as a boat. The boat sails off on various adventures, encountering a big bird puppet and three people with flashlights. Eventually the boat gets blown up by a cannon and sinks. But the boat’s cabin remains intact and serves as a stage for a short political puppet show. Later some Indians fish the boat’s hull out of the water. Then the boat becomes a badminton net, and some people fold it up into neat squares, as in a flag ceremony. Thus folded, the boat becomes a book, and when the book is read by a baby, it becomes a tree.

I’ve examined this plot from a number of angles. It could be a metaphor for anything from the Krebs cycle to the endurance of great literature. Which is to say that it means nothing specific, and probably nothing at all. And, if it does mean anything, or if the whole point is that it’s not supposed to mean something but rather be something, then it becomes a moot point anyway because, in response to what I’ve seen, I just don’t care.

In his artsier-than-thou way, however, Wilson flaunts the derivative elements of his eclecticism. The most obvious ingredients are the Japanese arts of Bunraku and Kabuki. That accounts for the puppets–and the bird puppet is quite beautiful–as well as Suzushi Hanayagi’s less than riveting choreography. Wilson also is in debt to Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus dances, brilliant work that is pathetically mimicked in The Knee Plays. And, if you insist on pounding your entertainment dollar down this avant-garde rathole, you may also notice some touches borrowed from sci-fi films. The large baby mask worn in the list dramatic segment is identical to the one worn by the torturer in Brazil. And the enigmatic conclusion, what with both baby and monolith, is strongly reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But however all this flotsam comes to form The Knee Plays, I’d still prefer to see it in the original. Wilson has borrowed from fine artistic sources, but he’s paid them back in counterfeit. Take Kabuki, for instance, which originally developed from Buddhist dances, but has existed in a debased form for the past century. With the help of Hanayagi’s choreography it’s further debased, sometimes resembling a cheap martial arts display, other times blending with the sort of chorus numbers that gave interpretive dance a bad reputation. And, like traditional Kabuki, Wilson’s work runs long. Even though The Knee Plays runs only two hours, a fraction of the alleged 12-hour span of the CIVIL warS (which has never been performed in its entirety), it’s plenty long enough. I thought I’d get bedsores waiting for them to finish building that boat, block by block by block. You could sit through a Kabuki play all day long and not suffer tedium like that.

I’ll tell you what I did like. I liked the bird puppet. I liked one of the nine dancers, Carl House. He’s athletic and skilled and he makes the other dancers look like rodeo clowns in comparison. And I have a great deal of admiration for Heinrich Brunke’s lighting design. Understand that the Civic Theatre’s huge stage is practically bare, and there’s very little scenery except for what the dancers carry on. So mood, environment, and some exquisite pictures are created almost entirely with light. For instance, there’s a scene where a basket salesman contemplates a grain of rice, although, if you hadn’t read the program, you’d think he was examining a bottle cap or a hangnail. Not much to work with, but as the man and his baskets are warmed in amber, against the background of a magnificent peach pastel cyclorama, the stage picture becomes startlingly beautiful.

Not much to live for, considering the appalling disappointment of the overall production. That disappointment is measured in part by the hype, both here and on the east coast, surrounding The Knee Plays. It’s also measured by the cult status accorded to Byrne and (Pulitzer nominee) Wilson. Well, big deal. Shakespeare was a genius, but you’d have to hold a gun to my head to make me watch Henry VIII. And after The Knee Plays, I’d require additional incentives to sit through the CIVIL warS. What cracks me up, though, is how this show sold out. Not only that, people applauded. Now, either this is a vastly accessible and entertaining production that I’m too crude to appreciate, or that audience was packed with the sort of people who’ve read Ulysses three times because it’s such a hoot. Of course, there’s a third possibility, that this is a case of the emperor’s new clothes. But we don’t have emperors in America, only stars.