by Margaret Croyden

The Lincoln Center Festival 2007, Continued

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

The Lincoln Center Festival 2007
Robert Wilson and the Comedie Francaise.

No international festival would ever be complete without the great Robert Wilson. No matter what his work is, he is sure to be invited, and he is sure to create a stir--and sell out the theater. His version of the 17th century "Fables de la Fontaine," performed in French (with English subtitles) by the famous Comedie Francaise actors, who double in numerous roles, was the Festival's premiere piece. As expected, it did attract full houses and standing ovations.

La Fontaine wrote more than 240 fables--mainly beast tales. Wilson selected twenty of them to dramatize and included a narrator. Clearly the animal stories--replicas of humans--are used as metaphors to describe, satirize, and criticize the human condition. This famous author had less than a favorable opinion of mankind.

The stories include the lion, the fox, the monkey, the crow the wolf, the lamb, the frog, the donkey to name but a few. Each animal has a tale to tell. The lion falls in love and is betrayed; he loses his claws, his teeth, his hair--everything that made him king of the jungle. ("Love, love, once caught in your snare/ We can bid farewell to wisdom outright," appropriate lines at the end of the lion sequence). The cicada is on the brink of starvation and asks the ant for food but is told to "dance the winter away;" the wolves eat the lamb; the foxes do their dirty work: the horses are reduced to slavery; the lion dies and everyone pretends sorrow at the funeral only to immediately plot how to capture the throne. Ulysses appears and offers the animals a chance to be human. But they refuse: they prefer to be what they are: humans with an animal mask.

Hypocrisy, stupidity, opportunism, flattery --every human characteristic is described and satirized but La Fontaine's bitterness is tinged with plenty of black humor and witty observations.

Masks are the key to this production. The actors' masks are fierce, startling, amusing--all stunning--and typify each animal in the story. The actors brilliantly project the total animal: the voice, stance, tone and attitude. Especially engaging are the actors' acrobatic movements, their body expressions and amusing characteristics--all beautifully executed. In fact, the production elements--the masks, the costumes, the lights, the music are so elaborate that they overtake and diminish the stories.

This is to be expected. In the "Fables" (and in all Wilson's productions) Wilson is the star. His technique takes precedence over everything. The actual story becomes unimportant and acts as a vehicle for his style, his technical brilliance. An audience must LOOK at a Wilson piece--must look at his dreams, images, nightmares, paintings, lighting, and the minimalist staging. These are important esthetics of a Wilson work.
One loves his style, or finds it narcissistic and emotionally empty. The characters seem cold, alienated, and drained of humanity. The effect of all this is that Wilson, after more than thirty years, has become repetitive, as though he were imitating himself. All of which can be stultifying, even boring in its predictability. Despite the beauty and imagination of the production, the intellectual power of the Fables was lost; the technique was overbearing. Wilson's signature was everywhere to be seen.

Despite this criticism , I have always taught of Bob Wilson as a true American genius. He has produced dozens of brilliant works, played all over the world, and is known everywhere. But he has worked at an inordinate rapid pace. One wishes he produced less, took time to think about a new road, a new style to express whatever his artistic needs demand and wherever it may lead.

MARGARET CROYDEN's recent book is "Conversations with Peter Brook, 1970-2000" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)


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