Who is Robert Wilson?
In a way, it's an embarrassment that the question needs asking. Wilson may be, as Eugene Ionesco has called him, the most important figure in American theater — he's certainly the most daring and visionary — but the plain fact is that relatively few American theatergoers have ever seen his work, and many don't know the name.
His international multimedia epic, "the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down," was the unanimous jury choice this year for the Pulitzer drama award, but the Pulitzer board overruled the selection, reportedly because they felt queasy about honoring a work so few had seen or could see (the only earlier board veto for a jury's drama selection was for Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?") The sad actuality is that "the CIVIL warS" has yet to be seen — in its gigantic entirety and 14-hour length — by anybody, because it has not yet been fully produced.
Now, however, Washingtonians will have the opportunity to experience the part of "the CIVIL warS" known as the American section and called "the Knee Plays." The production will run four nights at the Warner Theatre starting Wednesday, under the auspices of District Curators. Originally premiered two years ago in Minneapolis' Walker Art Center, "the Knee Plays" is coming here as part of a transcontinental tour that began in Cambridge, Mass., in September, and ends next month after additional performances in New York City and Vermont. This is the first national tour for any Wilson work.
"the Knee Plays" may well be the best place to start for audiences new to Wilson. For one thing, the piece has music and lyrics by the Talking Heads' David Byrne. "the Knee Plays" is also free of a few Wilson traits — mainly, enormous duration and slow motion — that some have found barriers to appreciation. Wilson is 6-foot-3 and a native Texan, and he characteristically thinks and works on a very big scale indeed. One of his by-now legendary projects was the performance in Shiraz, Iran, in 1972 of his "KA MOUNTAIN AND GUARDenia TERRACE," which took seven days and seven nights. "the CIVIL warS," in its projected totality, is another example.