Many of the images are familiar from the main of “the CIVIL warS,” but they are much more lightly treated here. (Wilson calls them “buds” that flower later into the main work.) The main body of “the CIVIL wars” contains rhapsodic travel through space and time, and its global theme is full of bizarre moments of cultural misunderstandings. The tents are part of a haunting war scene from the Cologne Segment; the boat’s sunken hull refers to the Nautilus episode in the Marseilles section. There are other Wilson symbols — a stylized chair, reading gestures, big birds, strangely haunting hand motions — that recur throughout the director’s work.
But in “the Knee Plays,” these are all lightly sketched. Each knee play but the last ends with a knee dance, choreographed by Suzushi Hanayagi, whose work is based upon movements from Noh theater and Kabuki. Bunraku puppets are also employed. And there are even some instances of traditional acting — Admiral Perry emerges from the boat’s hull when it lands in Japan; he meets a Japanese fisherman; and they act out an amusing skit of cultural differences; which is echoed by a Punch and Judy show. In the ninth knee play, a Japanese basket seller sets his baskets down; while he meditates on a piece of rice, the baskets dance.
As in all Wilson, sight and sound are treated as individual senses. Visually, the show is stunning: Wilson’s stage designs convey much with simplicity and elegance; the lighting by Heinrich Brunke creates a sense of fairy tale magic. It is common in “the Knee Plays” for New Orleans jazz to accompany Japanese dance, along with icily humorous, surrealistically hip narration written by Byrne. But it is Wilson’s notion that by allowing different elements to live in their own worlds — not in conflict with one another but not related, either — the mind observes each more fully. One’s attention sometimes wanders to light or to the movement or to the music or to the narration. But Wilson’s theater is a world of itself, and this attention, at any rate, never wanted to leave it.