Some of Byrne's music also has words, read by Matthew Buckingham. They don't quite make sense. But they aren't word salad either. A kind of story is transpiring here, too, set in a world of shopping carts and freeways, a place where "business is being done."
The people in lab coats may represent that world. But their present business is to assist the story of the tree, the boat and the book — to turn the pages, as it were. They snap and unsnap the ark together. (It looks something a child might have drawn on graph paper.) They manipulate the great puppets: the golden-faced man and the flapping bird, which seems to be made of toothpicks. At one point the assistants lower themselves to the floor and begin to hop. A field of solemn lab assistants suddenly turned into toads! Poetic justice.
How to read "The Knee Plays" is up to the viewer. My companion saw the lab assistants as images of the factory of the future. I thought of helpers in a mental hospital. The T-shaped tree will certainly suggest Christ's cross to many, particularly when the golden-faced rod puppet is held up before it.
The eerie bursts on the horizon when the tree falls are called "lighting" in the libretto. But I saw a nuclear war zone. And in the winter scene (the clearest reference to "the CIVIL warS," with its two transparent tents) I didn't see winter. I saw a beach in autumn. The cold would burn off as the sun took hold. (Heinrich Brunke did the lighting.)
"The Knee Plays" has changed a bit since it was first done at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 1984. The lion who chases the man up the tree was then a "real" (i.e. paper) lion. Now she's a dancer, a less playful image. I also missed the Walker's pine Kabuki floor-which I may well be imagining. Wilson's pieces give us just enough in the here and now to hold us; but their real work gets done in the mind's eye.
"The Knee Plays" is a tantalizing sampler, but it's time to have a full-scale Wilson piece in Los Angeles. At the time "the CIVIL warS" was canceled, Robert Fitzpatrick said that he'd make a Wilson work his first priority if he did another Los Angeles arts festival. But there's no such work on Fitzpatrick's preliminary schedule for the 1987 festival, announced Wednesday. (See story, Page 1.) If we can't afford "Einstein on the Beach" or "the CIVIL warS," how about Wilson's staging of "Alcestis" for the American Repertory Theatre?