"The Knee Plays," the Robert Wilson/David Byrne collaboration that plays at 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall, is not for everyone. But those anxious to get a taste of the work of these two breakthrough artists will not come away disappointed.
Though there are parts of the 95-minute show that are just a bit too precious — the too-formalistic entrance of the musicians, for example — it's clear that we are witnessing serious work (though often quite droll) by two extremely important contemporary artists.
The piece is elaborated with Wilson's mix of Eastern and Western theater styles — American avant-garde, classical Japanese, modern dance, etc. — to Byrne's entrancing, hypnotic score, heavily influenced by New Orleans street-funeral music.
"the Knee Plays," which I caught last weekend on the Los Angeles leg of the show's national tour, were never designed to be performed together. They are the "joints" between the major segments of Wilson's epic, 12-hour, multi-media, multi-national spectacular, "CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down." These "knee plays" were intended to be presented one by one in front of the curtain while the large scenic elements of the epic were being put in place behind the curtain. In their minimalist way, they comment on the elaborate apocalyptic visions on the main stage.
But, inasmuch as "CIVIL warS" never has been produced in its entirety, and is not likely to be produced as a single entity in the foreseeable future (the costs are astronomical), Wilson agreed to the commission of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to put together the 13 segments of "the Knee Plays" and tour them as a unit, to a score by Byrne of the rock group Talking Heads.
Though not designed to be seen at one sitting, "the Knee Plays" do work as a single unit, with an abstract kind of story running through them, involving a tree, a boat, a book and representatives of mankind. They are atypical of Wilson's elaborate, spectacular style, being performed on a bare stage, for instance, and with simple, child-like props and set pieces.