LETTERS TO EDITOR
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A CurtainUp Review
by David Lipfert
First of all, there are two black ravens but not a white one in sight. Second, this piece is nominally about Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama but Judy Garland, a Mae West type (as Miss Universe) and a Big Foot are in attendance as well. Maybe this will justify calling White Raven Robert Wilson's most overtly humorous work seen in New York to date. At least the audience thought so and supplied broad chuckles throughout the evening.
Wilson and composer Philip Glass prepared White Raven in the early 1990s, but its premiere was delayed until Expo '98 in Lisbon. That fair commemorated exploration and conquest in the years following Columbus's "discovery" of America that ushered in Portugal's Golden Age. The first Europeans to sail past the Cape of Good Hope to India and return to tell about it are the main but not only theme.
The key scene in the first part shows the Portuguese court of King Manuel I discussing da Gama's voyage to the unknown. It's an odd collection of types. All are in black except for da Gama and a bishop, both in white. Moidele Bickel uses oversized, wafer-thin panels as stand-ins for ruffs. The men sport pants baggy at the top and closed at the bottom, the kind popular from Kurdistan to India. Reiko Kruk supplies the Queen campy makeup to accentuate her abundant gown. Two rambunctious pages perform a ceremonious routine in the background. In typical Wilson fashion, gestures take place in slow motion, but there is just enough movement to retain interest.
In the second half, the court scene reprises with da Gama presenting the spoils of his trip for all to admire. There are also a few natives as exotic trophies. (Bickel evidently based his costumes on early illustrations of native cultures to underline the royals' pleasantly Eurocentric viewpoint.) Native king and queen plus Siamese twins in a single golden Marie-Antoinette-width dress parade in. The tales, however, are what everyone wants to hear, and the taller the better.
The texts for these scenes range from da Gama's published descriptions of his voyage to irrelevant matters of etiquette and nonsense segments. While Wilson's shows are usually promoted for their themes, they are more compelling on a purely visual level. When you are in the theater, the texts can safely be disregarded. All the better because between Philip Glass's frequently Wagnerian orchestration and Dennis Russell Davies's commensurate conducting, it is all but impossible to catch the words in many of the English sections. Remaining parts in Portuguese have English surtitles. The few times when accompaniment is in proportion to the voices (presumably amplified at New York State Theater), the total effect of the production is captivating. As the evening progresses the scenes need to be compressed, especially one involving the Writer (Lucinda Childs) and Child in a boat moving ever so slowly.
For the most part sets and curtain are hanging panels with blown-up versions of Wilson's sketches. Broad, dark brush strokes can stand for hills, cliffs, or waves against a succession of monochrome backgrounds, usually with Wilson's signature fuzzy bright horizontal stripe cutting across. In the next-to-last scene these open strokes are to represent the Brazilian rain forest under threat from a brutish burn-and-slash eco-vandal that emits live flames for a brief moment.
Perhaps the most successful scene uses Persian-Mogul illustrations as a base. Stylized mountains hosting cutouts of a royal hunting party and wild animals form the background, while a chorus in white Northern Indian garb populate the downstage. Other memorable images are the Mae-West-look-alike "Miss Universe," who descends from the flies nestled in a crescent moon (and wired in various directions for safety). For this scene, Janice Felty is poured into a slinky, shiny black gown and given a wavy long blonde wig. She also has the only voice of distinction. The others range from disappointing (Yuri Batukov) to unpleasant (Douglas Perry and Herbert Perry). In compensation, the singers are remarkable in their execution of Wilson's choreographic-like direction, almost approaching the dancers' ease.
Lucinda Childs is an unalloyed delight as a Writer reciting selected accounts by da Gama and other explorers and a scientist while executing her familiar, stiffly stylish movements. In the original Wilson/Glass Einstein on the Beach she created the slick, modernist look for the dance component that contributed heavily to the piece's success a quarter century ago. Here, isolated in a gray man's suit and cropped hair, she is even more distinctive. Her diction is also exemplary.
Philip Glass's recognizable style has served him well over the years. He has been able to spin three-note sequences (always in major key) to last an evening, or so it seems. Minute variations (this is Minimalism, after all) can seem like whopping changes in his musical lines. One thing for certain, there is more sophistication now than in Einstein from 1976. Many of the numbers now have formal conclusions and don't simply end as they did then, with a blackout to make the point. Glass uses an ABA structure, the kind Mozart and Handel used, for some of the Wagner-length monologues in White Raven. Audience familiarity with his music has translated into popularity, and that does count for something. The trite finale with everyone including the excellent pit chorus gradually coming onstage becomes reassuring with Glass's elemental accompaniment.