October 10, 2014
I should confess from the beginning that I have a prejudice against Robert Wilson’s works because theater for me is all about storytelling, not visuals devoid to dramatic text.
When I found out that I would be reviewing Shakespeare’s Sonnets at the BAM Next Wave Festival, I concentrated on my fondness for Rufus Wainwright's music and deep admiration for the Berliner Ensemble.
Then I saw this show and was blown away, by the visuals, the genuinely compelling performances of the ensemble and the music created for the production. And what a production it is! Wilson takes all standard conventions, turns them on their heads, and forces us to consider the sonnets in new and interesting ways. First, most of the text is spoken in German, although there is an English translation provided on screens for the audience. The only downside to that is that you have to stop watching the actors in order to read the text.
Next, everything is gender-switched. All the men’s roles are played by women and all the women’s roles are played by men. And finally the music and soundscape are used to define and impact the audience even more than the staging, sets, lights, and costumes. Oh, and did I mention that the show is a mix of “medieval German Minnesang, classical, pop, and cabaret rock”? Don’t know what that is? You have to see it to understand it.
It’s a long show – 2:45 with an intermission. The first act – the longer of the two – hangs together very well. The second act is less cohesive feeling choppier and a little forced. Right at the point of losing the audience, however, Wilson pulls out the most impressive visual of the night. It’s a stark piece, set to Sonnet 44, wherein Shakespeare is ruminating about the death of his son, Hamnet. And therein lay the magic for me – Shakespeare’s Sonnets have all the bells and whistles you’ve come to expect of Wilson (interesting visuals, sparse staging and text, silhouettes, precise physical movement, a soundscape that drives things forward) – but unlike my previous experience, here the story (or stories) are clear.
Credit should go to the acting ensemble who are deft, agile, and equally comfortable in farcical and dramatic moments. Solid across the board, Jürgen Holtz (Queen Elizabeth’s 1&2), Angela Winkler (the Fool), Georgios Tsivanoglou (Cupid), and Traute Hoess (Rival), were particularly compelling. And a special mention goes out to Georgette Dee and Winfried Goos for providing solid cabaret shtick periodically throughout the night.
It’s a full night, and gets slow at points, but overall it’s a dazzling evening watching the explosion of several different times and cultures at once.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Kelly Johnston