Robert Wilson meets Shakespeare. It happened over the weekend on a sound stage at Metromedia Square, where Wilson presented the results of a short-term investigation of "King Lear" with a complement of UCLA theater folk. The results were surprisingly complete.
"Exploring King Lear" was an alternate title for the production, presented by the arts division of UCLA Extension. We weren't promised anything more than a rough sketch of a "Lear" that Wilson will be doing in Germany in 1987. "I don't know what I'm doing," Wilson had said more than once during the two-week rehearsal period.
But his eye knew. "Lear I" may have been conceptually tentative, but visually it could have passed for a finished Wilson work. A big one, at that. And although not a literal account of the play, it was "King Lear."
The audience sat in risers, opposite a wide stretch of earth that sometimes suggested Lear's heath and sometimes put you in mind of a shoreline, with a strip of groundlights for the water. A simple space, in any case. Behind it, a white cyclorama.
The actors wore black. There were about 25, men and women, giving something of the effect of a Greek chorus without the enforced unanimity. One even walked with a limp--which, rather than being a distraction, seemed to awaken the eye to study everyone's individual gait and body type. Wilson's tempos invite you to really look at his actors, something we rarely do in the theater.
The tempos were maddening to some who saw this "Lear," the first major piece that Wilson has done in Los Angeles. Where was the build? Where was the climax? The trick, of course, was to stop fighting the pace. With Wilson, you know that you're going to be on the road for three or four hours anyway. (Here, about 3 1/2.) Sit back and enjoy the view.
The road map at Metromedia Square was Shakespeare's play, approached in fairly straightforward fashion. Wilson wasn't trying to smash up "King Lear" and put the pieces together in a new way, as Charles Marowitz had done with "Hamlet." He was trying to tell the story.
I doubt that his telling made much sense to those who came in without knowing what happens in 'King Lear." Too many elisions, too many conceits. But for those who had heard the story, perhaps too often, Wilson's version restored some of its wonder. At its best, it was like going behind "Lear's" words to touch the impulse that had produced the legend.
That's not to say that Shakespeare's words were neglected. UCLA Prof. David Rodes had shortened the text, but he hadn't tampered with Shakespeare's language. It was richly there, whether conveyed by an onstage character or by an offstage reader. (That was one of the conceits.)
But there was plenty of space around it. As with the placement of his actors, Wilson didn't seem to want to flood you with information. The reading voices never went in for deep emotion, although avoiding monotone. Lear (Ford Rainey) kept his rage and his grief somewhat under wraps: a relief to those who have seen too many Lears try to outshout the thunder on the heath.
The feeling was more often that of a ceremony in honor of "King Lear" than a first-hand playing out of the story, a ceremony with its own strange codes and symbols. Its formality didn't belie emotion, but it had a meditative quality, particularly appropriate for the end of the story, when Lear has burned through emotion and come to wisdom.
Yet, to keep it from being church, there were those startling images that seem to come so naturally to Wilson. A Poor Tom (Eric Marks) in a jackal's head, like a cave paintings of a shaman. An enormous throne composed of wooden sticks, like a geometry example. Huge, black-covered totems walking around under their own power. And amid all this formality, a triangle of cherry pie on a plate--the visual equivalent, perhaps, of "Pray, sir, undo this button."
Some scenes were boring too. Some went off on tangents that couldn't be connected with the story. The very last scene went on far too long. And Wilson will have to rethink the device of showing shots from various films of "King Lear." Interesting as they were (especially the scenes from an old silent version), they take primacy away from the actors.
But for a preliminary investigation, it was remarkably sure of itself. The German "Lear" will be something to see.