The creative talent behind this iconoclastic German-bred quasi-musical, now in its Southern California premiere, is formidable: controversial but widely praised opera and theatre director Robert Wilson; multitalented songwriter-performer Tom Waits, who wrote the score; and revered Beat poet William S. Burroughs, who wrote the "text." Their efforts, in combination with a superb cast and a gifted design team, would seem to constitute a recipe for electrifying theatre. Think again.
There are indeed flashes of genius in this obsessively anarchic work, but surrounding the isolated moments of inspiration-brilliant visual imagery and delightfully wicked humor-are passages of brain-numbing tedium. Wilson's vision is eclectic to a fault: bizarre cabaret, Faustian myth, Brecht-Weill musical drama, acid trip, German expressionism, surrealistic nightmare, camp, who knows what else. Shattering audience expectations to stretch artistic boundaries is a noble mission until it degenerates into obnoxious self-indulgence. There is no justification for endless instances of characters moving in extreme slow motion as they drag their way across the stage. Challenging us is one thing; wasting our time is quite another.
Defenders of past productions speak of the work's deliberate lack of discernible narrative continuity and its dreamlike ambiance-a preponderance of disconnected images and thoughts-as a virtue. But assuming the creators envisioned some sort of idealogic or thematic unity to the random sights and sounds before us, they haven't achieved it. Worse yet, whatever links the audience might make for themselves to the proceedings are further sabotaged by acoustic imbalances. The incoherent goings-on, coupled with the inability to hear all of the text and lyrics, make for an excruciating three-hour sit.
Wilson's astonishing set and lighting designs, Waits' occasionally marvelous songs, Frida Parmeggiani's wondrous costumes, and the valiant efforts of a fine ensemble-especially Matt McGrath as the protagonist, the clerk who sells his soul to the devil-warrant praise. But for those who believe that the whole of any artistic work must be at least as good as the sum of its parts, this stultifying endeavor fails miserably-a nightmare in a way not intended.
Presented by Center Theatre Group at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7:30 p.m. (Also Thu. 2 p.m. May 25, Jun. 1 & 8. Dark 7 p.m. Sun. May 28, Jun. 4 & 11.) Apr. 26-Jun. 11. (213) 628-2772. www.centertheatregroup.org.