The difference between sense and nonsense is that all sense is at least potentially different, whereas all nonsense is basically alike. This is particularly true in the theater. A stage work usually lasts a couple of hours, which is too long to be striking, the way a Surrealist painting is, and too short to get under your skin, like a pored-over volume of Rimbaud or Lautréamont. Two hours is just the right length to be a crashing, uncommunicative bore.
That is the case of Robert Wilson, whose The Days Before: Death, Destruction & Detroit III opened the Lincoln Center Festival 99 not with a bang (except in its music) but with a whimper. To be sure, like all successful charlatans, Wilson is cunning. He figured out how to make a show happen -- be a Happening -- even before it starts. The New York State Theater can accommodate multitudes, and the sold-out world premiere of The Days Before was to have begun at 7 p.m. on a canicular New York evening, with doors scheduled to open at 6:30.
Alas, until 7:15, the doors remained shut tight: While Nero fiddled inside, outside the roaming burned. The locked-out crowd had two choices: remain uncomfortably warm in the plaza, or crowd into the box-office area and swelter unbearably. What did most people do? The latter: pack themselves into that sizzling cage like sardines in a hot tin can. Since they all had assured seats anyway, why subject themselves to that inferno? Because these were not thinking people; these were Robert Wilson fans.
A parboiled audience is putty in a snake-oil salesman's hands: In air-conditioned comfort, flimflam seems like manna from heaven, and a bare-assed emperor seems swathed in Armani. The Days Before was, of course, the same self-indulgent claptrap with which Wilson has regaled us for a quarter-century, although it did feature the dulcet tones of Fiona Shaw as narrator and tossed Tony Randall and Isabella Rossellini into the stew like a couple of pope's noses.
What you got was a mind-numbing hodgepodge of music by the Japanese noise-maker Ryuichi Sakamoto, a text based largely on an unreadable novel by that high-toned con artist Umberto Eco, with additional verbiage (e.g., "This is not that, that is not this" repeated ad nauseam) from Tone Poems by Christopher Knowles, whom Wilson discovered 25 years ago as an autistic youth and, shall we say, adopted, and who, once again, performs in this Wilson olio. Add to this, confusing video images projected onto several peripatetic screens, a set featuring a few odd abstractions, and a good-size cast of bizarrely shaped individuals in waggish costumes and makeup.
Although it is all "conceived, designed, and directed" by Wilson, the actual design executants are, like the performers, recruited from all over the globe, which is what makes them so madly chic. Thus, near the start, Dadon Dawadolma intones a monotonous and endless Tibetan chant. Thus, near the middle, Semiha Berksoy, a 90-year-old Turkish opera squawker, campily bedizened and reclining on a sofa, is slowly propelled across the stage as a recording of the Liebestod is encroached on by her decrepit screech. The audience roars with laughter.
Mostly, it is the usual dream or nightmare images, beginning with a scrim displaying the enormous picture of an object that is part eggcup, part ice-cream cone, part nothing. Next, a performer in a crude owl mask, and another in a childish rooster one, cavort about in what only Wilson would consider choreography, by one Suzushi Hanayagi. Actually, reading the program with such mellifluous names as Makram Hamdan and Restu Imansari Kusumaningrum was more fun than watching the stage.
And it is in the program that Wilson indulges in one of his pretentious autodidact's maunderings about how he "explores the process of destruction and reconstruction, drawing from apocalyptic history what's that?, thought fat chance, and imagination heavily recycled." And further, "A mediation structure of revelations huh? is interwoven through forms of narrative, philosophy, and memory." Seven paragraphs of this, laced with references to Knowles's "poetry" and Sakamoto's "layer of sound," are followed by a pointless diagram and a "scene description" of the twelve tableaux. Tableau x, for instance, features "arch angels, arc angels, and god," though you might easily mistake them for horseflies, horse manure, and mud. Will Wilson's formulaic images ever be recognized for what they are: a party bore's recital of his dreams to a captive audience?