Review: In Tao of Glass, Phelim McDermott Attempts to Reach the Essence of Philip Glass

The Akhnaten director appears onstage with pianos, puppets, and an invisible Philip Glass.

A man plays a tiny piano as two puppeteers circle him and expand his hair with tissue paper sheet music.
Phelim McDermott (center) plays piano as Sarah Wright and David Emmings circle him with sheet music puppets in Tao of Glass, co-directed by McDermott and Kirsty Housley, at NYU Skirball.
(© Tristram Kenton)

Philip Glass is, if not the greatest living American composer, certainly the most instantly recognizable. Whether composing an opera about Einstein or underscoring a film about Virginia Woolf, Glass’s pulsating, ever-evolving ostinati hit the ear like an unmistakable voice — Ethel Merman or Maria Callas if they were restricted to wordless tones. And just like those two iconic artists, listeners either love him or hate him.

Director Phelim McDermott falls firmly in the former camp. Even before he helmed the acclaimed 2007 revival of Glass’s opera, Satyagraha, he was a fan, buying a recording of Glassworks in college and stalking the composer to a London sushi restaurant during the UK premiere of Akhnaten. Glass has been significant in McDermott’s career, but his music also has the ability to mentally transport the busy theatermaker away from his early travails (just last night, McDermott won the Olivier Award for his direction of the surprise smash hit My Neighbor Totoro). According to McDermott, Glass’s music brings him closer to the “essence level” of perception (more on this woo-woo concept later).

McDermott attempts to make us hear what he hears (and feel what he feels) in his new show, Tao of Glass, now making its New York debut at NYU Skirball. Part concert, part Taoist TED Talk, this brainy yet accessible piece directly exposes audiences to the musing and obsessions of one of the most creative stage directors working today — all set to a strikingly beautiful score by Glass.

With the help of four musicians (Chris Vatalaro, Jack McNeill, Laura Lutzke, and Katherine Tinker) and three puppeteers (David Emmings, Avye Leventis, and Sarah Wright), McDermott performs this not-quite-solo show in a disarmingly informal first-person, drawing lines from personal anecdotes to big concepts (the piece is co-directed by Kirsty Housley, with Peter Relton helming the remount).

A story about a broken coffee mug (a gift from his son) prompts a discussion about the Japanese art of Kintsugi, a metaphor for finding beauty in the reconstructed shards. “And you can buy yourself a Kintsugi set online for $35,” he informs the audience, breaking the tonal spell he so meticulously cast just moments before.

A Manchester native, McDermott’s easygoing Northern charm serves as a welcome tonic for the more mystical aspects of this show, which reach an apex in his explanation of the three levels of experience roughly laid out in the Tao Te Ching: “consensus reality” (all the things we think of a “real” and verifiable), “dreamland” (deep feelings), and “essence” (a level difficult to describe). McDermott and scenic designer Fly Davis visualize these levels with three concentric black rings that rise and fall onstage, performing a celestial dance.

A bittersweet air of grief haunts Tao of Glass as McDermott discusses a planned theatrical adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, which would have featured music by Glass, but was shelved when the beloved children’s author died in 2012. Using a screen made from what appears to be reinforced tissue paper, cleverly designed puppets (by Lyndie Wright), and some well-placed flashlights (lighting by Colin Grenfell), McDermott allows us to see the shadows of a production that never was: As the stage rotates, McDermott and the cast subtly manipulate the stage picture to tell a truncated version of In the Night Kitchen. The music rises to a crescendo, with a silhouette of Philip Glass conducting with his hair high above a city skyline. Dynamic and arresting, the moment is as good a physical representation of Glass’s music as I’ve ever seen, and that includes McDermott’s juggling production of Akhnaten.

A man wears a suit made out of tissue paper sheet music.
Phelim McDermott wrote, directed, and stars in Tao of Glass at NYU Skirball.
(© Tristram Kenton)

That tissue paper (which is imprinted with sheet music) is the indispensable prop in Tao of Glass, with the performers manipulating it into several different puppets and an on-the-fly couture costume for McDermott, held together by a spider’s web of scotch tape. All of it reveals an adult stage director who has never lost his boyish senses of invention and wonder — to our great benefit.

McDermott’s wonder is most clearly expressed in a late scene, in which the director lies on the floor and revolves around the center of the stage while the composer attempts to reach him at the essential level with an improvised composition (Glass does not appear live, but is represented by a Steinway grand piano that plays back an exact replica of his performance). I cannot say that I ever escaped consensus reality as my mind wandered toward household chores and my review calendar (watching someone else listen to music is about as exciting as it sounds), but I did leave with a greater understanding of the big ideas that animate McDermott’s work.

And then there’s Glass, whose compositions are just as complex and goosebump-inducing as ever. Even though he is very much a subject of the piece, Glass never overpowers McDermott’s occasionally meandering narrative. Instead, he offers shades of intrigue and bursts of exuberance, deepening our experience of the piece in ways that are truly difficult to put into words. For McDermott, this is surely a triumph.

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Tao of Glass

Closed: April 8, 2023