Robert Wilson is theater’s high priest of estrangement. Sweet Honey in the Rock founder Bernice Johnson Reagon has used the songs of the black diaspora to inspire collective protest from Selma to South Africa.
An adaptation of Flaubert’s hallucinatory Temptation of St. Anthony from these two ought to make the Rapture look like a slow night on The 700 Club. But the resulting production, shown at BAM’s Next Wave Festival, is more of a respectful conversation than a revelatory collaboration.
Flaubert’s oneiric novel envisions the desert-dwelling saint’s encounters with unholy phantasms both sensual and philosophical. In Wilson’s reimagining, Saint Anthony’s dark night of the soul echoes the long nightmare of slavery. Reagon’s response is a song cycle that moves across centuries of African American spiritual tradition and musical styles, including her own compositions. The set’s soaring architecture and pair of long benches suggest a place of worship, and Reagon’s spectacular chorus features plenty of preachers. The visual and aural impact of this thriving congregation nearly eclipses the solitary Saint Anthony (Carl Hancock Rux).
If the hermit stays in the picture, it’s due to Rux’s phenomenal charisma and supreme physical expressiveness. His entire body contorted by anguish, Rux achieves a near-iconic power, equally evoking El Greco’s saints in extremis and images of civil rights protesters besieged by fire hoses. Helga Davis’s Hilarion, the saint’s disciple-nemesis, stalks Wilson’s color-washed stage like a tigress sizing up her prey. Every (brief) time these two face off, the stage hums with electric anticipation. Unfortunately their voltage is perpetually grounded by song after song from the chorus.
While this emphasis proves a dramatic disappointment, it’s certainly not a musical one. En masse or individually, the ensemble offers stunning turns: “Table Is Spread” rocks the house, while Charles Williams’s hushed solo as an Ebionite who knew Jesus and Christalyn Wright’s undulating Snake Goddess stop all oxygen intake. (Can someone tempt Ms. Wright into the role of Salomé?)
Many of these voices have filled opera houses before, and their electronic amplification, as well as the band’s tendency to fill in every space in the score, feel unnecessary, even glossy. The evening keeps drifting into an elegant, uplifting concert. The songs may refer to struggle, but they carry profound hope. In such a soundscape, the saint’s ultimate redemption seems inevitable instead of in jeopardy.
Reagon’s St. Anthony celebrates the astonishing power of the human voice to counter despair and injustice. In the exhausting hysteria of these pre-election days, such a musical embrace offers respite, if not theatrical satisfaction. We are bathed in the harmonic bliss of communal song; but the elusive image of a man wandering in the wilderness, seeking a resonant truth, is what haunts us.