So here I am back at my computer after my whirlwind trip to Berkeley to see the Pomegranate Arts revival of “Einstein on the Beach”, Philip Glass’ seminal 1979 avant-garde opera masterpiece. I have listened to the soundtrack literally hundreds of times over the years and was so excited about seeing the West Coast premiere that I was willing to plop down $150 for a single seat (yes, that’s American dollars) plus the cost of plane fare and a hotel. That’s not a cheap night out at the theater, folks. So was it worth it?
Oh my God, it was SO worth it.
Walking out of Zellerbach Hall at 7:30 p.m. (after sitting riveted for four-and-a-half hours) I was dazed and disoriented and completely uncertain as to what had become of me. All I recall of the bewildering half-hour that followed (before the existential elation subsided enough for me to realize that somehow I’d come to rest outside a Papa John’s which I took as a sign from my newly-expanded universe that I should go in and get a couple of slices of pepperoni) was a deep, intense regret that I couldn’t have seen the show when it premiered in 1979. I can only imagine audiences at the Avignon Festival walked out in the supreme confidence that they’d just seen every struggle in art and music and theater definitively resolved, and perfect beauty had won—and would now continue to do so for all eternity. Seriously, it was that incredible.
In several places, the production actually moved me to tears (but then, just about every musical I see makes me cry—shit, I think “American Idiot” made me cry, so take my tears for what they’re worth.) “Train” in Act 1 was an incredible juxtaposition of movements at different tempos and angles, the components all suggesting the mental imagery running through Einstein’s head as he worked through his famous thought-experiment involving trains moving at relative speeds. That scene was the purest and most moving depiction of the interior process of genius that I can possibly imagine. And the tears I shed over it were QUITE different than those I shed at “American Idiot”, I promise you that.
Other blindingly brilliant moments came from violinist Jennifer Koh, who spent the whole performance in an over-the-top white wig suggestive of Einstein in his later years. She executed the score’s famously intricate violin passages with superhuman speed and accuracy, all the while maintaining a characteristic Einstein-ian slouch. And the saxophone solo by Andrew Sterman in “Building” (though not one of my favorite passages of the score) brought down the house.
There were a few disappointments—most of them environmental. I was extremely frustrated with the behavior of the audience, which at times bordered on the simian. Instead of coming in and sitting down quietly (and paying attention to the performers already performing on stage in an act of performance) everyone stood around talking loudly and taking goddamn pictures like they were at the goddamn zoo. Boy, that irked me. And I’m afraid the rude phone behavior didn’t stop once the performance got underway. People in front of me kept lifting their cameras to take pictures (and I swear to the Gods of my Ancestors, I was just itching for a flash to go off so I could vault over multiple rows of seats and issue an old-school beatdown on some monkey-brained asshole) but the worst, the absolute WORST was after the incredibly beautiful “Aria” at the end of Act 3. After this moving and emotional piece, the whole house goes dark for a moment. And what happened in that moment of pure darkness, I ask you to guess? Not one, not two, but THREE phone screens lit up around me. Oh, those fuckers! I wanted to commit acts of justifiable homicide but it was too dark to see.
Most people seemed to do OK with the show’s very long running time. Several audience members around me realized that this just wasn’t their cup of tea and bailed—and good for them. The couple next to me left about 30 minutes in, leaving me lots of lovely legroom. I much prefer that approach to the one taken by the couple in front of me, a husband and wife, who seemed visibly bored and uncomfortable but were determined to stick it out. The husband seemed worse off than the wife (either he was really extra bored, or maybe he had a bad back or something) and the wife kept fussing over him in loud whispers, “Are you all right? Do you need to go? Do you want to go?” And it was just driving me buggy.
And another thing. Einstein on the Beach is a pretty challenging piece when it comes to audience response—vis a vis, applause. The whole score really is one long continuous piece of music. One section leads into the next seamlessly. Unlike more traditional theatrical productions (where pauses can be extended to accomodate thunderous applause after a showstopper number) that didn’t always work out so well in EOTB. Several times the applause (while gratifying and genuine and heartfelt) absolutely ruined an important and or delicate musical transition. It was very frustrating—and all the more so because I feel just the tiniest bit responsible for getting the whole thing started.
See, during the whole first act, the audience didn’t make a sound. Not a peep. No applause. But after the incredible violin solo in Knee 2 (the first major violin solo in the whole work) I was so amazed by Koh’s rendition that I did a wee little mime-clap, without any sound. (And seriously, listen to this piece of music and imagine it being performed live about twice as fast by a woman in a white Einstein wig and then tell me you wouldn’t have mime-clapped.) Anyway, apparently the lady beside me saw me, and she started really clapping, then the whole house started clapping. And it was great, and all …. but after the dam burst, as it were, the audience clapped at everything. I mean everything. Gah. Unintended consequences indeed!
Beyond the environmental irritants, there were a few aspects of the production I didn’t care for, or which I thought weren’t pulled off as well as they could have been. The whole Act 1 “Trial” sequence was an utter snooze. I’m sure they were being faithful to the original production but … meh. That whole section of the score isn’t my favorite either, with its weird, dated, quasi-misogynistic monologue. That was the only time during the whole performance that I was seriously in danger of falling asleep.
The biggest disappointment, however, was the lackluster performance of my favorite passage, “Spaceship,” at the end of Act 3 (you can hear it here). In traditional theatrical terms, “Spaceship” is the show’s “grand finale.” It should just absolutely flatten you–and every recording I’ve ever heard of it delivers on that promise. But alas, this production got “Spaceship” really wrong. The stagecraft was staggeringly brilliant, consisting of a lighted grid in which the whole company stood feverishly working out equations while a gruesome victim (of an atomic blast, one assumes) mimics the parallel dance from Act 1′s “Train” beneath the child-version of Einstein and the young-man version of Einstein floating overhead in glass elevators. Absolutely mind-blowing. The picture up at the top of this post gives you just the tiniest hint of how incredible it was. But the music was slow, mushy, low-energy, and undifferentiated. The piece’s significant base elements were terribly murky, and yet at the same time they drowned out the beautiful treble of the singers. I thought maybe the problem was that the singers were singing with their backs to the audience, but since they were all wearing head mics, I’m not sure how that could have made much difference. The whole thing was so out of line with the incredible energy of the rest of the performance that I hung around outside the theater afterward, laying in wait for a totally random guy I’d overheard before the performance saying he’d seen all 3 Berkeley performances. I just HAD to ask him if there was some kind of sound problem with “Spaceship” because the difference was (to my ear) so egregious. But no, he said that that night’s performance was in line with the others he’d seen–but he added that he’d also seen a couple of the New York performances and that they were done with much more gusto and crispness.
It was a disappointing performance of my favorite scene of the opera, but I can’t say that it ruined the whole thing for me—rather, it made me want to buy a plane ticket to Mexico City (the tour’s next port of call) to see if they do it better down there.
Was it worth it? Every single penny. I mean, it would be worth it just for the sheer spectacle of watching the musicians, singers and dancers put themselves through this incredibly grueling Ironman of performances. (The dance sequences? OH MY GOD. Twenty minutes of continuous jettes and pirouettes left the dancers absolutely sopping with sweat by the end. It made me wonder if they had oxygen tanks waiting for them in the wings.) I feel honored to have seen it.