Robert Wilson has passed into a very odd stage of his creative development, one that could happily be called "The Clapper" phase. Certainly having lighting as a crucial component of his design is nothing new - he has been painting minimalist sets with richly colored light for decades. But in "I La Galigo" at Lincoln Center (just as he did in "The Temptation of St. Anthony" at BAM), the man has gone lighting-mad.
In the course of a three-hour show, a performer may make many gestures. And with each one, Mr. Wilson flips the lights. A fellow jumps, someone hits a drum beat, and - whoosh! - the backdrop goes purple. A sweep of a hand and - zowie! - the backdrop turns green.
Fortunately, "I La Galigo," outside of its clap-on, clap-off design, actually has very little to do with Robert Wilson, per se. Certainly, his characteristic gestures - sleek set pieces, slow, stylized parades - are here. But as his director's note confirms, he has simply provided a frame for 50-plus Indonesian artists to ply their trade.
"I La Galigo," adapted by Rhoda Grauer from the Bugi epic, is a Sulawesi sacred text that runs to 300,000 lines. A segment of the story, much of which has never even been translated into modern Indonesian, requires dozens of dancers, singers, musicians, martial artists, and one transvestite priest to perform. Mr. Wilson can stand safely out of their way.
Ms. Grauer focuses on the Middle World, our human domain that is purged both in the prologue and epilogue. Recent natural cataclysms certainly fit neatly into this creation myth - these gods are capricious and wipe the world clean whenever they see fit. To repopulate the Earth, gods from the Upper and Under Worlds send their children into our realm, which causes its own set of problems.
Two divinely descended twins fall in love in the womb, and lest the world be destroyed by their incest, heroic measures must ensue. Sawerigading (Kadek Tegeh Okta WM), the male twin, embarks on long journeys to get out of temptation's reach, while his sister ascends to the heavenly sphere. The actors do not speak, expressing themselves entirely through dance and gracious, constantly moving hand gestures.
Thus Rahayu Supanggah, music composer and conductor, takes on the great burden of narration - his 13-piece orchestra, including two champion singers who tell us the story (translated in the supertitles above them), sits onstage. At the extreme downstage edge, on a platform that seems to float over the pit, Puang Matoa Saidi, intones key sections attributed to priests or gods. Mr. Saidi is himself one of the vanishing Bissu priests, one of perhaps 50 people alive who can still read the archaic Indonesian language.
Although it approaches sacrilege to say it, Mr. Wilson seems to have started repeating himself. More and more of his pieces achieve a certain look, while lacking intellectual complexity. The elegance of his mise-en-scene is never in doubt; he has a painter's eye. When he chooses, he can make a breathtaking image - women in 20-foot-long blue dresses inchworm across the floor on their bellies, or a man descends a ladder headfirst.
But despite Mr. Wilson's vocal praise for "structure," often talking about a piece's "skeleton" in interviews, his dramaturgy has a nearly paralyzing slackness. The State Theater at Lincoln Center, with its big fake diamonds bedazzling the boxes, is an unfortunate spot for a Wilson production. The stage is plenty large enough, and with the singers miked and supertitled, the acoustics work just beautifully.
But the State has 50-foot-long rows of seats in the orchestra, none pierced by aisles. The three-hour epic with no intermission wore hard on many audience members, and a slow exodus began at about the two-hour mark. Watching from above, it seemed as if those abandoning ship were in a Wilson work of their own - adopting the same interminable, inching crawl across their neighbors' laps.
Those disappointed enough to leave had probably arrived expecting a show. If they had bought their tickets hoping for a Mass, perhaps they would have felt a bit more at home. Watching "I La Galigo" requires patience, but stick around, rewards do appear. The chance to see such a concentration of Indonesian talent rarely exists, even on its home soil. And in the final moments, after hours of constant music, for an instant the world lapses into silence. When the stage clears but for the Rice Goddess (Coppong Daeng Rannu), a treasure of dignity moving her fan, the work finally creates a genuine religious experience.
Until July 16 (Lincoln Center, 212-239-6200).