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Shakespeare’s Sonnets: BAM Next Wave

Robert Wilson “I don’t want to know why I do anything, I just do it and look at it and then do something else.”   —Robert Wilson

In a darkened theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), a lone bard, standing beneath a spotlight wearing Elizabethan garb and exaggerated, Kabuki-like makeup, delivers the opening lines to Shakespeare’s Sonnets. In charismatic German she sets the tone, as all prologues should, for the evening yet to unfold. A production directed by the notoriously stylistic Robert Wilson, scored by the singer/songwriter/composer Rufus Wainwright and performed by the Berliner Ensemble, famously founded by Bertolt Brecht in 1949, Shakespeare’s Sonnets was imported from Europe this fall as part of BAM’s Next Wave Festival. Five years after the show premiered in Berlin for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s sonnets, the 70-plus member German troop found their way to Brooklyn. Digging deep into the depths of abstruse conceptualism to shatter our preconceived notions of what theater ought to be, Robert Wilson’s aesthetic approach to theater is a formal one. Like Merce Cunningham his actors are bodies, drawing out his architectural visions within the confines of the stage. Bored by naturalism and psychological theater, Wilson’s staging has become familiar for its Chaplin-esque qualities of artificiality: it’s acting based on timing. Though Shakespeare’s Sonnets falls well within Wilson’s stylistic comfort zone, visually and conceptually it forces our current cultural mood, inspired by a post-digital specificity, into abstract conversations. Perhaps without entirely meaning to, Wilson brings metaphor and free association back into theater via staging, sets and song. Robert Wilson Adapted into German, Shakespeare immediately evoked for me the sad, singsong poem recited in Wim Wenders 1987 film, Wings of Desire. As Wenders’ angels wander a post-war, walled Berlin they speak in eternal existential rhyme. Similarly, Wilson’s mannequin-like characters, often dressed in monochromatic shades of black, gold and scarlet, recite ponderous sonnets: “When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see, For all the day they view things unrespected; But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee, And darkly bright, are bright in dark directed.” Infused with allusions to German sensibilities, Wilson and Wainwright’s Sonnets are not eloquent meditations on love, but vignettes that speak of modern history, current politics and cultural identity. Recreating a cabaret-like underworld of desire, misfortune and misunderstanding, it’s a topsy-turvy world they drag us into. Despite being armed with 25 sonnets and 2 hours and 30 minutes of time, the actors themselves tell only a small part of the story. Instead, the impact of the production relies heavily Wilson’s sets and the visual pictures he creates with them. Often giving us the sense that we are watching a slideshow rather than a live performance, the actors become details of a larger, sculptural vision. Wilson gives us a performative sculpture in lieu of a theatrical performance: motionless and silhouetted figures watch two black and white screens as they play identical films featuring a young boy, a glass of milk and a knife; framed by a red car that appears to have crashed around a steel pole, a couple slowly walks together to share in an intimate kiss; a garishly lit stage features three motionless figures standing at what appear to be futuristic gas pumps, serenaded by a blasting rock and roll orchestration; on a tiny, childlike bed a woman shoots up as a man sings a song of lamented love before hanging himself. Brought to life through Wilson’s eyes, Shakespeare’s sonnets become a series of abstract allusions that lead to moments of visual ambiguity. It is through Wainwright’s music, however, that a different side of the story unfolds, as he injects flights of maudlin sentimentality into an otherwise removed and objective production. In his first foray into “theatrical production” composing and working with an essentially untrained musical cast, Shakespeare’s Sonnets reflects both Wainwright’s immense talent and at times, his inexperience. His orchestration includes everything from noisy sound art to his signature melancholic ballads. In navigating the difficult task of choosing specific sonnets for particular actors while stylistically arranging them into song (sung in English), Wainwright experiences varying degrees of success, giving the musical score a somewhat inconsistent presence throughout. It is actually his spoken word sonnets that have most lingering and haunting effect, and where some of his best choices are made. For example, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is recited in bland monotone by an aging and stooped bard. Watching Shakespeare’s Sonnets, it’s hard not to flinch in the face of its complexity, or to be perplexed by how little it explains itself. Is it about Germany and German history? Does it draw upon Weimer culture, Cabaret, post-War Berlin or German New Wave cinema? Are there Brechtian overtones of surrealism and metaphor, or are the Berliners circumstantial and Wilson’s form just stylistically abstract? Speaking at BAM shortly before the production’s final weekend, Wilson stated that, “In formal theater there is a certain distance you keep from the material that allows space for the public to enter the stage. We demand too much of what they should feel. There should be space for reflection, time to think.” While we as an audience might not know what to do with this space, this production shows that there is a need for it. Though audiences should never need permission, this show comes with the kind of intention that says, interpret as you will. With a bemused smile Wilson says, “it was Proust who said he was always writing the same novel, and Cezanne who said he was always painting the same still life, so in a sense one is always discerning the same patterns.”

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