Stage Review: the Knee Plays — Scenario by Robert Wilson, music and words by David Byrne, directed by Wilson. Choreography by Suzushi Hanayagi, lighting by Heinrich Brunke, sets and costumes by Wilson and Jun Matsumo. Narrated by Matthew Buckingham, danced by Frank Conversano, Denise Jeannie Hill, Carl House, Choo Kyoo-Hyun, Fabrizia Pinto, Satoru Shimazaki and Sanhi Wagner. At the American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, through Oct. 5.
As time goes by, it begins to look as if we might never see Robert Wilson's 14-hour "the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down," except in sections. Having already presented the so-called German section of "the CIVIL warS," the American Repertory Theatre last night staged "the Knee Plays," a collaboration involving Wilson's stage pictures, David Byrne's music and words and Suzushi Hanayagi's choreography. While "the Knee Plays" retains enough of Wilson's stylistic signature to be readily recognizable, it's also markedly different than his other works. Part of this can be predicted from the credits; in "the Knee Plays," Wilson crosses cute New Wave geometrics and robotics with Japanese theatrical conventions. The result is often light-handedly beguiling, formally elegant, spiced with a dash of unbuttoned down-home earthiness.
"the Knee Plays" are slight, but for that very reason disarming, and their economy adds to the sense of crisp surprise they often generate. One of the reasons they seem so unlike other Wilson theater pieces is that they never were meant to be performed as a whole. "the Knee Plays" are called that because they were meant to serve as joints between the larger sections of "the CIVIL warS." There are 13 in all. Played consecutively, they form a string of glittering miniatures. Anyone who has sat through Wilson's longer pieces knows that there are times when time not only slows down, but seems to stop entirely, if not run backwards. Here, no single episode lasts longer than a few minutes. But if the other Wilson pieces are longer, they're also more deep-breathing, more profound during those moments when their hypnotic surrealism takes hold. "the Knee Plays" may be thought of as diet Wilson — light, even tasty, but not really filling.