What happens when you take an opera, and throw everything conventional about it out of the window? Get rid of the plot. Trade soaring music and lyrics for soothing repetition. Tell the audience that, due to a lack of intermission and an interminable run-time, they’re free to leave and re-enter the theater at their discretion. Mix all of this together, and you end up with Einstein on the Beach, the groundbreaking experimental opera by Robert Wilson and composer Philip Glass, which just finished a revival run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Einstein on the Beach premiered in 1976. On its tour around the world, it made its American premiere in a pit stop at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, and suddenly everyone in the experimental arts world was talking about it, gob smacked by its total lack of conventionality. Yet despite its fame, and its historical importance, few people have seen the opera live. It hasn’t been performed in NYC for 20 years. Now, it’s making its way around the globe in a new production, which touched down at NYC’s BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House from September 14th to the 23rd. This revival is directed by Wilson, who helmed the original in addition to conceiving it and controlling most of the motion on the stage, with the exception of some dance numbers choreographed by Lucinda Childs.

Einstein is, obviously and intentionally, an incredibly strange beast. To start off with, it’s not even clear when the show begins. As the audience trickles in, two women on the stage (played by Kate Moran and Helga Davis) are engaged in what the show’s creators call the “Knee Play,” where they sit straight up in chairs, their arms making random movements on the desk in front of them, robotically reciting numbers and words. Once the lights dim, the show runs over four hours, and not a lot happens. Or rather, not a lot happens in terms of a plot.

The show is composed of many separate scenes connected to each other through theme or leitmotif, so if you’re looking for an arc or a traditional story, things seem to move slowly. But there’s constant motion on the stage, and constant concentration required on the parts of both the audience and the performers. Some bits of the show are bustling and vaudevillian, with a full stage and every person on it doing something different. Your eyes are drawn to the stenographers in a courtroom scene, and you miss the actions of the witness. At other times in the show, the actors/singers/dancers repeat the same motions over and over again, with only slight variations, for entire scenes. Characters rarely speak, and when they do, it’s rarer still that what they’re saying makes sense. More often, it’s text like, “And it could be were it is. It could be Franky… it could be very fresh and clean.” Actor Charles Williams, who plays a judge and a bus driver, speaks the only text that tells a story in this production, and his monologues jolt the audience with the sheer sense that they make.

Actors have been instructed to alternate between sudden outbursts of mugging — bugging out their eyes and puffing out their cheeks — and extreme stillness and slowness in motion. Even the act of moving across the stage can take a performer half an hour in this production. In one scene, which runs about 20 minutes, two actors move from the inside of a train car to the outside, turn to and from each other, and go back inside the train car, where the scene reaches its surprising climax. They sing numbers and solfège in rapid sequence, over the same few notes. All the uniformity requires immense concentration on the actors’ parts. They deserve commendation for the manner in which they throw themselves into it, and the technical skill they must rely on for such a grueling show. In particular, Helga Davis evinces a certain grounded composure that’s fascinating to watch. Every so often, the performers come off more like marionettes than people, tightly controlled within a narrow range of movement. Though they are all shapes, colors, and ages (including a little boy), they all wear the same uniform, for the most part, of white shirts and black suspenders, with only the occasional splash of color or goofy wig. There’s no room for any of these characters’ hopes and dreams, but that seems to be Wilson’s goal. The point of the show is not to have the action onstage dictate to you as an audience member what to think or feel. It’s to lose yourself in the strangeness of it all, and let your thoughts flow from there.

This omnipresent music marks Philip Glass’s first run at composing an opera (Glass went on to compose an array of opera and theater productions inclusive of Satyagraha and The Voyage as well as a multitude of scores for films such as The Hours and Martin Scorsese’s Kundun). While it’s not beautiful or moving in the traditional way of a soaring aria, it becomes strangely hypnotic, and is often deceptively complicated. The music is always repeating, building upon itself each time. It starts out with simple tones. Then the tones layer upon others, and soon, the music has become a cacophony, capable of evoking the sound of a train (a setting in which multiple scenes of the opera take place.) BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House makes a perfect setting for the performance. It’s just expansive enough for the extraordinary set, with its chugging trains and spaceships.

Einstein on the Beach is an incredibly polarizing experience. Critics rave about it, but at the performance I saw, many audience members left and did not come back. If you thrive on experimental theater, do everything you can to see this production. Follow it around and watch it more than once, to catch every little thing going on. If the idea of listening to people recite lots of sentences that don’t make sense while opening and closing their hands very slowly does not sound appealing to you, run, do not walk, away.

For a complete schedule of tour dates and locations of “Einstein on the Beach,” please visit http://pomegranatearts.com.

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