- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 25, 2007

One of Robert Wilson’s earliest plays created a stir in his hometown of Waco, Texas. Locals called the work performed by learning-disabled boys “sick.” His father went even further: “Son,” he said, “not only is it sick, it’s abnormal.”

Mr. Wilson’s story is a familiar one — shy child with a small-town religious upbringing blossoms into an artist in the Big Apple — and it’s chronicled with some insight in a new documentary, “Absolute Wilson.” Writer-director Katharina Otto-Bernstein explicates the life and work of the avant-garde stage director and playwright through interviews with her subject and his colleagues and admirers.

“I think the fact that Robert Wilson did not have a traditional theater education gave him the freedom to create a new form of theater,” one observer muses.

Mr. Wilson enrolled in a pre-law program at the University of Texas to please his father. He eventually left to study architecture at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute in the 1960s. His art would always be very visual; later work in dance would add a vital sense of movement to the mix.

He made the mistake of moving back home briefly. His father, once Waco’s mayor, was a Southern Baptist who had trouble accepting his son’s homosexuality. After a suicide attempt, the artist was put into a mental institution. “My first impression was that I sort of liked it,” he glibly remembers. “The aesthetic of it.”

Cut to an image of actors in straitjackets. Miss Otto-Bernstein wisely peppers her doc with generous helpings of Mr. Wilson’s own interdisciplinary work, from his 1976 opera scored by Philip Glass, “Einstein on the Beach,” to his 1990 collaboration with singer-songwriter Tom Waits and “Naked Lunch” author William S. Burroughs, “The Black Rider.” The viewer is struck by how much of his life he put into his experimental work.

“I was surprised that I was so torn up,” Mr. Wilson says of learning of his father’s death, but we’re not: Miss Otto-Bernstein coaxed her subject into frankness, and we’ve seen how complicated a relationship father and son had.

She’s better with the life than the work. Those curious about how an experimental artist develops his ideas will be disappointed that more time isn’t spent on Mr. Wilson’s working methods. And we hear from lots of admirers — including Mr. Glass, soprano Jessye Norman and the late Susan Sontag, who reports seeing his play “Deafman Glance” a dozen times — but only one naysayer, the critic John Simon.

Mr. Wilson is now 65 and still working. Unfortunately, little of his recent work is explored, such as his delving into the operatic repertoire for the Metropolitan Opera, the Bolshoi Opera and the Opera National de Paris.

“The reason I work as an artist is to ask questions,” Mr. Wilson says. “Absolute Wilson” doesn’t answer all of ours, but it does begin a conversation.

***

TITLE: “Absolute Wilson”

RATING: Not rated

CREDITS: Written and directed by Katharina Otto-Bernstein. Music by Miriam Cutler.

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

WEB SITE: www.absolutewilson.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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