the CIVIL warS

Polar Bears, Lincoln on Stilts; ‘the CIVIL warS,’ Robert Wilson’s Hypnotic Collage

When a new creation by Robert Wilson gets stag -- as little known as he may be to the average run of American theatergoers -- it's inevitably an Event with a big "E." This was certainly the case with the portion of his "the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it's down" mounted by the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard's 500-seat Loeb Drama Center, and seen in its "national press opening" in Cambridge this past weekend though it has been in previews for more than a week.

Like most of Wilson's work -- though not, perhaps, to the same epoch-making degree as his opera "Einstein on the Beach," in collaboration with composer Philip Glass -- "the CIVIL warS" segment at Loeb is radically unconventional, startling, hypnotic and provocative. Despite some less than trenchant aspects, it once again shows us Wilson stretching the limits of artistic possibility with an imaginative daring that has few parallels on the contemporary scene.

The sense of occasion was magnified by the complicated genesis and production history of "the CIVIL warS," and the thorny path that led Wilson to the present ART production (which runs through March 17). As originally conceived, "the CIVIL warS" -- which occupied Wilson and his multinational collaborators for six years -- was to be a 12-hour opus in five acts, 15 scenes and 13 "knee plays" or interludes. Parts of the work have had separate premieres over the last two years in Rotterdam, Cologne, Rome and Minneapolis (the "knee plays"), and others have received workshop performances in Tokyo and Marseilles. But the projected "complete" staging for the Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles last year fell through for lack of funds, and until now only an abortive "concert performance" of one act has taken place in this country.

Hence, the ART production of Act III, Scene E, and Act IV, Scene A and Epilogue, is the first American presentation of a major slice of the work. It's also the first time Wilson has worked with an established company of American actors. One of the things the event demonstrates is that Wilson hasn't left the realm of the controversial. The Loeb production runs three hours -- not long for Wilson, who's made one piece that took seven days to enact -- and has an intermission, a Wilson rarity. Yet, here was a performance in Cambridge, amid the greatest concentration of intelligentsia in the nation, and at least a third of Saturday night's audience walked out, presumably in indignation or boredom or both. At one point, it was cause for general merriment -- a group of people got up to leave just as one of the actors spoke the line "Oh, stay by me and go you not!"

Though the inspirational starting point was the historic American conflict, "the CIVIL warS" is not just about the struggle between North and South, but more generally, about divisive fissures within individual men, nations and humanity as a whole. This is the reason, Wilson explains, for the peculiar capitalization of the title: "I think of it as a civil struggle that's gone on through all times . . . any number of historical confrontations, not necessarily violent, which comment on man's long journey towards brotherhood."