Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 1999
"Angels and ministers of grace defend us!" Hamlet cries when he first sees his father's ghost in Act I, scene iv. When Robert Wilson, who came up with the visual concept for this 3-D digital opera, was touring in a one-man "Hamlet" he often mispronounced that line "Angels and monster of grace..." hence the title.
The Hunter Center at Mass MoCA was packed with people of all ages for Saturday night's performance of "Monsters of Grace", which is heartening because works by Wilson and the minimalist composer Philip Glass are generally considered "inaccessible to the masses". And yet there were the masses of north Berkshire ready and willing to access whatever came there way. I saw very few people walk out, so I would assume the majority found something in the 74 minute performance which was accessible to them.
The Philip Glass ensemble - consisting of seven musicians and four vocalists - performed live while the 3-D digitally animated film was projected above them. This is an interesting mixture of traditional and new entertainment media. Two problems existed for me in my ability to access them. First, I am used to watching films with a pre-recorded score and it is easy to forget that the lives musicians are there performing. And secondly, it makes your eyes and your brain hurt jumping back and forth visually between the film and the live performers while wearing those funny little paper 3-D glasses.
I found I had to remind myself that the film was in 3-D, my brain was happy accepting that the screen was flat and the rest of the world had depth. When I worked at making the stereoscopy happen, I couldn't easily readust my eyes and thoughts to the real world. And I wanted to enjoy both worlds. Seeing the instruments played by the ensemble and wathing the faces of the vocalists was obviously part of the experience. But how to tear myself away from the large sleeping polar bear that appeared to be floating just above my head?
What was a polar bear doing floating just above my head, you might ask? Well, someone attached to this project may have the answer as to why various images and words and sounds were combined in "Monsters of Grace", but I don't In fact, I doubt whether anyone does. After attending "The Making of 'Monsters of Grace'" on Thursday and then spending a day in between travelling and hearing what people had to say when I announced I was hurrying home to see "Monsters of Grace", I have come to the conclusion that the finished product is really a group of parallel art pieces performed and displayed simultaneously.
The film was directed and created by the North Adams based Kleiser-Walczak Construstion Company. Jeffrey Kleiser and Diana Walczak spoke at the Thursday event, and their talk leaned towards the technical end of this venture. But it was evident that they and their team felt a lack of communication with Wilson, often relying on people who had worked with Wilson before to explain to them what they thought Wilson's concpets and purposes behind the visuals were. Wilson is rumored to have been displeased with the final film. Kleiser mentioned times Wilson would look at weeks worth of painstaking animation and decide that the original concept had been all wrong. On the stage, with live actors, you could make a radical change like that fairly late in the creative process. In animation you can't.
So animators who had never worked in theatre were working with theatre people who had never worked in digital animation. What you see is undoubtedly not what Robert Wilson orginally intended. But what you see is also undoubtedly a work of art.
And then there are Glass's compositions, and the musicians and vocalists interpreting them. The libretto is based on a translation of 13th century Turkish poetry, and what is a translation but a re-interpretation of the original? A poor attempt to make understandable in one language what is perfectly clear in another? And so "Monsters of Grace" is translations of interpretations and performances of intentions reinterpreted.
Robert Wilson is quoted as saying of this piece, "We're not giving you puzzles to solve, only pictures to hear. You go to this opera like you go to a museum. If you try to understand it, you'll be confused."
Luckily I had no intention of trying to understand "Monsters of Grace" only of enjoying it. And it was very enjoyable. I really liked the music, which was the piece I had feared would be least accessible. I was that disappointed CDs of the opera were not for sale at the performance, although it is possible that the creators do not approve of taking any one component of the whole out of the complete context in that way.
The poems, originally witten by Jalaluddin or Yalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273), and translated by Coleman Barks, are both beautiful and amusing. Click here to see the libretto of "Monsters of Grace". I encourage you to take a look at it - especially if you were able to attend Saturday night's performance. They will not help you understand the opera at all, but they are worth reading for themselves. Rumi was the original "whirling dervish" who wrote primarily of drinking, women, and God - a combination considered politically uncorrect today but which is surprisingly moving when encountered through the glass of the centuries.
I wish I could conclude this review by telling you how long "Monsters of Grace" is running and where you can get tickets, but, alas, it was at MoCA for just that one night. If you didn't get to see it, I would encourage you to do so next chance you get. It is not like anything you have seen before or will be likely to see again. The creators all speak of this being a glimpse at the theatre of the future. I think they are right. It is a glimpse, a briefly caught image of something that might be. The future will come in its own time and we will see if this first glance is truth or a dream.
For information on future programs at Mass MoCA please call 413-664-4481.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999