A scene from I La Galigo
(Photo © Ken Cheong/Ung Ruey Loon)
A scene from I La Galigo
(Photo © Ken Cheong/Ung Ruey Loon)
Quoting one of her mentors, Lily Tomlin has often said, "A thing of beauty never hurries." The limber-limbed comedian is looking for laughs when she says this, but Robert Wilson has always taken the succinct motto to heart. Little in Wilson's oeuvre speeds along on Mercury's wings, although occasionally it seems that his works could pick up the pace just a bit and still make their statement about the relationship between time and high art. There's a fine line separating a theater piece that mesmerizes the audience from one that simply puts it to sleep.

The opening sequence of his latest spectacle, I La Galigo -- which continues its run in the Lincoln Center Festival through July 17 -- remains on the right side of that line. During it, a parade of actors travels s-l-o-o-o-o-w-l-y from stage left to stage right, bearing such objects as jars and javelins. Some of the members of this animated frieze carry their burdens on their heads; a few of them don't walk at all but slither instead, trailing long trains.

They're all supposed to be clearing out what is known as Middle World in the obscure Indonesian epic poem Sureq Galigo, from which Wilson has adapted (with Rhoda Grauer) this intermissionless, three-hour work. (Yes, intermissionless!) Upstage of the marchers, musicians sitting cross-legged play Rahayu Supanggah's now-slow, now-accelerating, indigenous-sounding music -- often in 4/4 time. Downstage, on one of two bridges thrusting towards the auditorium, sits Bissu priest Puang Matoa Saidi, chanting most of I La Galigo's dialogue/lyrics.

Watching this initial sequence, which looks like a hieroglyph come to slow-moving life, I was enthralled. I wondered how long Wilson could keep it up and what the audience reaction would be if he remained at it for the entire three hours. (He didn't.) At about the production's halfway mark, a small percentage of attendees decided they'd had enough and rose two, three, and four at a time to leave. Threading their way along the aisles in the same kind of back-lighting that Wilson had already used for his prologue, they became a not necessarily flattering vision of life imitating art.

I La Galigo is visually stunning, as Wilson's pieces customarily are. Wilson, who is also the show's set and lighting designer, has said before and says again here in a director's note that he's not concerned with interpretation; that's a task he assigns the audience. "I simply like to consider my theater as the work of an artist," he states. "I have the same interest in the movement, the words, the light, the sound, and the image." My take is that he has more interest in the light, sound, and image than in the words. This production contains far fewer words than beautiful lighting cues -- vivid flashes of bright reds, yellows, and greens -- not to mention the hypnotic sounds of Rahayu Supanggah's non-stop underscoring and the deliberate arrangement of the cast (50 in number) on the stage in Joachim Herzog's striking costumes.

The standard Wilson stagecraft is in service to a poem containing the hallmarks of creation myths that have emerged in societies all over the globe. In some versions, this particular poem runs to more than 6,000 pages, and it was evidently recorded in Bugis-language manuscript that only about 100 people alive today can read. The meandering tale is narrated by the eponymous I La Galigo (M. Gentille Andi Lolo), who recounts how the Upper World and Under World manipulated the Middle World population until they tired of the activity and removed themselves, as gods often do.

Wilson's 10 scenes (plus prologue and epilogue) tail I La Galigo's dad, Sawérigading (the muscular Kadek Tegeh Okta WM), who's sent to govern the Middle World but who wants only to mate with his twin sister, Wè Tènriabeng (the exquisite Ascafeony Deangtanang Maladjong). The latter suggests that the former "look into the nail of my thumb" to see their equally gorgeous cousin, Wè Cudaiq (the equally gorgeous Sri Qadariatin) and mate with her. This happens, but not before Wè Cudaiq declares Sawérigading a "barbarian" and then changes her harsh tune. (By the way, Middle World should not be confused with J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth -- or should it? A ring does get tossed into this ring.)

Early civilizations had to formulate their own explanations of how life on this earth came to be. The resulting fantasies maintain a certain fascination but aren't enlightening as they once were, now that we have evolution to explain our origins -- or, at least, some of us do. Though Wilson's ceremonial stage piece involves passions flaring and moots the wages of incest, it never becomes emotionally compelling. At bottom, I La Galigo is a pageant, one that passes before the eyes colorfully but holds our interest only insofar as we remain intrigued by the idiosyncracies of the Other.