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New Wilson play updates Euripides

After years of creating works based on nothing but his own volcanic imagination, stage magician Robert Wilson has taken an interest in the classics lately, with a special nod to such tragic figures as Medea and King Lear. ``Alcestis,'' his new offering at the American Repertory Theatre here, marks his first full production of a classical text: the oldest known play of Euripides, telling the story of a selfish man who allows his wife to die in his place, only to be tormented by remorse.

Besides ``adapting'' the play to suit his highly visual style, the ever-expansive Wilson has added an abstract prologue by West German playwright Heiner M"uller and a comic epilogue in the ancient Kyogen style of Japan with Laurie Anderson music.

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It is all channeled into the best-known Wilson trademark, a steady stream of dreamlike images that shift and merge at a glacial pace.

With such a mix of elements and moods, ``Alcestis'' can't help being an unpredictable and provocative show.

Yet its crux -- the meeting of modernist Wilson and a master from the distant past -- seems restless and uncertain.

On the face of things, one might expect the formal properties of classical drama to mesh ideally with Wilson's profoundly formal approach to imagery and language.

Ironically, though, Euripides has been praised as the most accessible and even ``realistic'' of the Greek masters, with an interest in psychological analysis and social commentary rare among his peers. This same kind of interest is just as rare in Wilson's work, which takes off for never-neverland at every opportunity.

This aesthetic clash might have made ``Alcestis'' all the more stimulating if Wilson had recognized and explored it. Unfortunately, the production shows no such awareness: Wilson tries to give us himself and Euripides at the same time, with uneasy results.

Telling a continuous story for the first time, he bogs down in scenic details that evidently hold little interest for him, ill serving the narrative as well as his own gift for unbridled flights of theatrical fancy. The text, so splendid in its own right, becomes an anchor on his imagination -- which in turn dilutes the text with sparkling irrelevancies striving desperately to have lives of their own.

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Having stated this, I hasten to add that second-rate Wilson is still more exciting than almost anything else around, and ``Alcestis'' has many beauties to recommend it.

The key images are charged with mythic splendor: the white-winged character of Death, the glowing apparition of Apollo, the shrouded shade of Alcestis reborn.

Some strokes of stagecraft are breathtaking, as when the River Styx carries a glass coffin on a silent journey. In matters of construction, Wilson has the good sense to follow a long (and boring) sacrificial rite with an explosive low-comedy scene featuring a butler with a Jack Benny gaze.

And he hasn't lost his flair for haunting, mysterious images -- a banquet, for instance, attended by three figures who perform strange ceremonies over their table as the main action rattles away on the other side of the stage.

Wilson gets strong support, moreover, from the fine ART performers -- who flesh out the evening's most bluntly realistic scenes with solid professionalism while showing a knack for imagistic theater that makes them (as they showed in a partial production of ``the CIVIL warS'' last season) excellent Wilson collaborators.

Here's hoping that their skills and his visions keep conjoining in the future, growing and deepening in tandem. Here's also hoping that next time, inspired by the classics or not, Wilson will let Wilson be Wilson.

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