Grace Under Pressure

In Monsters of Grace, Philip Glass and Robert Wilson may have created theater for the next century. Not easily, of course.

Glass, working from Wilson's storyboards, heightened the mystical and exotic aspects of Rumi's poetry by adding samples of Middle Eastern instruments -- including traditional ancient instruments from Persia and Turkey -- to his usual sonic palette of synthesizers and woodwinds. The resulting score is extremely lyrical, with a warmth and richness wholly distinct from Glass' earlier music.

Through Rumi, Glass also found meaning in the work's title, which originated from a slip of the tongue. "Bob was doing Hamlet," says Glass. "There's a line in it that has the phrase 'ministers of grace,' and he couldn't get it right. He kept saying 'monsters of grace.' We were working on the piece at the time, and he was complaining to me, saying, 'I can't get this line right. I can never get it.' And then he said, 'Oh, the hell with it -- why don't we call the piece Monsters of Grace? And so that was the title.

"And then about a year later Bob said to me, 'What does the title mean?' So I said that grace is a divine state that is a gift that is given to people. And monsters are, in fact, the human condition. So as a piece, Monsters of Grace becomes the passage between the human world to the divine world -- which is precisely what Rumi is talking about."

Having collaborated with Wilson several times, Glass was all too familiar with the difficulties involved in turning Wilson's otherworldly imagery into reality. "How you take these space-age images and magical visions of Bob Wilson and put them on a stage has always been a problem," says Glass.

The 3-D computer animation proposed by Kleiser-Walczak seemed to be the perfect solution. "We were able to create a mountainscape for him," says Wheeler. "And in that mountainscape we were able to put the Great Wall of China and a pagoda that looks like the leaning tower of Pisa, and then all of that is fractured into little pieces of mica.

"Technology had caught up with Bob Wilson."
Creating visuals for Monsters of Grace involved a year of almost nonstop work by a crew of 20 to complete the final 73 minutes of footage. Only seven of the 13 scenes from the film were completed in time for the first scheduled performances at UCLA last April. The remaining six were staged live with actors.

Wheeler dubbed the UCLA show Monsters of Grace 1.0, with later, "updated" performances similarly designated (version 1.2 played at London's Barbican Center) until the world premiere presentation of the completed film at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in December.

Kleiser says the animation crew did everything they could to keep Wilson directly involved in the decision-making process. "We used both stereoscopic slides, which we projected for him in our New York office, and we also took a team of people to Berlin, while he was rehearsing another project, so that we could keep up with showing him what we were doing," he says.

But Wilson had apparently grown frustrated by his inability to exert his usual creative control, and began to distance himself from the work. "It was clear that we weren't going to have Bob be able to say, 'Yes, that's good' or 'No, that's no good,' " explains Kleiser. "So we took a lot of the responsibility for designing the later scenes ourselves -- based on Bob's designs, of course. That's when Diana and I became directors of the project, and we just told Bob that everything was going to be fine."

"I don't think [Wilson] is going to be doing 3-D film again," admits Wheeler. "Still, the objective is being achieved. Bob will be represented -- and represented positively -- throughout the country with a project that's groundbreaking, and which changes the way people think about what's possible. He will be associated with something rather daring that's using technology of the day."

While 3-D usually involves objects flying out of the screen to scare and/or surprise the viewer, Monsters explores infinite distance as much as startling proximity. Where high-end computer animation is known for maximizing activity in a minimal amount of time, here, as in Wilson's stage works, imagery unfolds in extreme slow motion. A boy rides toward the camera on a bicycle, moving at an almost imperceptible speed through the trees. A Japanese tea tray floats in midair before dissolving into television static. Wilson's trademark bars of light glide across the screen in a graceful, multicolored dance.

"Each person has a different experience, depending upon who they are and what they're thinking about," explains Kleiser. "There's nothing there in the content, really, to think about. It's just imagery to look at, and you bring to it your own kinds of sensibilities. So it's really a different sort of experience. It's a unique and enthralling experience."

Monsters of Grace will be performed Tuesday through Saturday, April 13-17, at 8 p.m. at Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft & Telegraph, UC Berkeley campus. Tickets are $22-42; call (510) 642-9988.

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