the CIVIL warS

Theater: Wilson's ‘Rome’ Segment in Brooklyn

NEW YORK -- The final moments of Act V of Robert Wilson's "the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down" are as beautiful and troubling as anything he's ever concocted. A jungle has crept across the stage, obliterating the history, both human and natural, that has come before. Philip Glass's whirligig score has gone silent, and been replaced by the calls of birds and animals. And in the midst of this green, life-filled Eden, a lone man dressed in animal skins and sandals -- he is Hercules, but it hardly matters -- raises his voice in a sad, slow song.

As his singing blends with the natural harmonies around him, he falls to his knees and extends an arm diagonally from his head in the gesture perfected by generations of children pretending to be elephants. He's probably just pointing to heaven, which is what he's singing about (we know this thanks to the translation in the program, for the text is Latin, from Seneca). But the animal trumpetings on the soundtrack suggest elephant, and the posture suggests elephant, and the mind seizes on the image as a consummate expression of the dual nature of man, of our baffling blend of god and beast.

This scene, with its implications of a paradise lost, regained and then lost again, is the culmination not only of Act V of "the CIVIL warS," but of the whole, 12-hour opus. Conceived as a globe-girdling theater extravaganza for the 1984 Olympics, it never came together because of last-minute funding problems. The scenes now on view at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, originally produced in Rome, are the third portion of the work mounted in this country thus far. And compared to "The Knee Plays" and the Cologne segments, this part seems less able to stand on its own.

This is true despite the fact that it is also the most traditional of the segments seen here so far. With the Brooklyn Philharmonic, under the direction of Bruce Ferden, in the pit; with legitimate voices singing the main roles of Lincoln, Garibaldi, Mrs. Lincoln, Hercules and Alcmene; and with a very opera-housey ballet interlude complete with ragged leaps and continual arm waving, this piece could probably be replicated easily enough by any opera company of modest means.

That's not to say that Mr. Wilson has abandoned his characteristic bag of stage tricks: He sends vultures, geese and herons flapping lazily through the air; he perches a giant singing owl on a tree limb; Robert E. Lee floats weightless in space; and Abraham Lincoln, tall as a house, wafts across the stage like some benign monster, then goes belly up. The intricate lighting, by Beverly Emmons and Mr. Wilson, makes magic of a line of singers in Christophe de Menil's billowing black robes, or of a narrow ladder silhouetted against a bare drop.

But there are no film segments or Kabuki dances or slow-moving earthquakes to mystify regular opera goers, but regular Wilsonians might be mystified, wondering why Act V is less satisfying than the other portions of "the CIVIL warS" produced here.