|Kathryn Cation, Sheryl Sutton.|
Leading avant-garde director-designer Robert Wilson presented this phantasmagorical Dadaist piece (previously seen in Paris) in the unlikely environs of Broadway. The critical confusion he engendered did much to cut his projected limited run of four weeks down to two. He called the work an “opera,” though it was more spoken than sung. It also contained some unusual whirling dances.
Unlike his earlier, silence-oriented works, this one was an experiment in language usage, an attempt to capture the pictorial and linguistic imagination of an autistic boy’s mind. 15-year-old Christopher Knowles, brain-damaged boy with whom Wilson had been engaging in therapeutic work, was a featured performer.
|Christopher Knowles, Sheryl Sutton.|
The language seemed random and abstract, never discursive, and impossible to follow in a rational way. It was fragmented, imagistic, and often spoken by several people at once in what sounded like gibberish. Screaming was also a dominant vocal approach.
Visually, Wilson’s taste for strange, fantastical tableaux and images made a strong impression. However, the work seemed less gorgeous than earlier Wilson events, and often seemed to strain for effects. Following the images for a thematic consistency was doomed to failure, as one vision succeeded the other in dreamlike progression without links.
|Sheryl Sutton, Cindy Luhar, Scotty Snyder.|
One representative scene described by several commentators is given here in T.E. Kalem’s words: “The backdrop carries the words CHITTER CHATTER printed several hundred times. Half a dozen or more couples are seated in silence at small café tables. Simultaneously, they all begin gesticulating and making high-pitched gibberish conversation.”
In another scene, as Edwin Wilson described it, “a group of four figures wearing army fatigues and World War I pilots’ helmets with goggles” was seen. “There is a strong crosslight which casts deep shadows on the stage. The four figures range themselves in a striking pose. The lights go out and then come on again and the four are arranged differently. Once again, and the four are on the floor.”
The critics were mostly appreciative of the evening’s bizarre beauty and enigmatic themes, even though they had to struggle valiantly to communicate the nature of the experience. Many found themselves mesmerized for the full three hours. The clue to watching, said several, was to get rid of preconceptions, stop thinking, and allow the effects to reach the subconscious where they could set off sparks of aesthetic enjoyment. Given his maverick proclivities, it was not surprising that critic John Simon chose not to follow his colleagues. Instead, he struck out at Wilson as an artistic pretender and his play as “The season’s scandal.”
Wilson was given the Joseph Maharam Foundation Award, and Alan Lloyd received a Tony nomination for Best Score.