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Defeated by the eternity of Einstein on the Beach

By John Terauds on June 8, 2012

I sit here at my laptop, 2 hours and 40 minutes after the start of a 4 hour and 50 minute show waving a large, white flag, head hung dejectedly, admitting defeat.

I could not sit through Einstein on the Beach.

It wasn’t for lack of a quality staging. This slick production in honour of composer Philip Glass’s 75th birthday is in the midst of a multi-city tour and has been thought out to the most minute detail and executed with the utmost precision.

My defeat also wasn’t for lack of wanting to experience one of the milestone stage works of the second half of the 20th century.

When Philip Glass and Robert Wilson unleashed Einstein on the Beach on the world in 1976, they stood theatre on its head by presenting the ultimate anti-opera that disconnected form from narrative.

This is achieved on many levels: The music features the fragments of melodies and the roots of harmony, but not their completion or resolution. Words do not connect to a larger story. The sung texts are made up of nonsense repetitions.

Lucinda Childs’ choreograhy has actors, singers and dancers move on stage in a way that does not reflect real people or natural movement.

Einstein became the violin-playing poster boy for performance artists everywhere who rejected the old not by rejecting old stories and forms, but by undermining the very foundations of how those stories were told in performance.

But what bowled over our parents and grandparents in the 1970s and early ’80s now clearly looks and feels and sounds like a curious slice of the past, as un-distant as it may be.

The piece felt especially old during a scene in which a judge launches into a diatribe about how women should be equal, and those who change the diapers should be the ones who rule the world.

Until tonight, I don’t think I had heard the expression “male chauvinist pig” since I was a little boy.

But age or changing times do not make or break a piece of theatre or opera. The good works and skilled directors find ways to connect audiences with the work, or the characters, or the  music, or the staging.

I can respect what I witnessed, but I was not able to connect.

For a simple-minded person like me, nothing beats a good story — and it can be told in novel ways.

Just ask Robert Lepage.

Einstein has no beginning. Having witnessed two hours of the show, I saw that it had no middle. So I assumed that there would be no end, either — literal or figurative.

Kudos to the team of great talents who made this revolutionary work possible. But I walked away defeated.

As I sat at the Sony Centre earlier this evening, I mused on the multiple repetition at the core of Einstein on the Beach. I can stare at a crackling fire or waves crashing on a shore for hours, finding not only a way to slip into another state of consciousness, but also feel comfort in the repetition.

But there was no comfort in Einstein.

I made a note in my programme about how music is supposed to connect us to the eternal. It’s a notion I subscribe to with all my heart.

But Einstein‘s sort of eternity is not what I had in mind.

Sorry.

For details on the two remaining Luminato festival performances of Einstein on the Beach at the Sony Centre, click here.

John Terauds

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