Monster Movies

Water music: A digital image from Monsters of Grace

That a work of live theater should take place in three dimensions might seem to be a given. So it's a testament to the almost perverse genius of composer Philip Glass, avant-garde stage director Robert Wilson, and designers Jeff Kleiser and Diana Walczak that they've chosen to mount a theatrical production by eliminating all actors, flattening the action onto a giant screen, and processing an abstract set of images so as to make them appear three-dimensional. The resulting creation is a touring "digital opera" called Monsters of Grace, which will appear Saturday night at the Northrop Auditorium. Intended to be viewed through polarized 3-D glasses, which will be passed out to the audience, this strange theatrical creation seems to set a new standard for the interplay of theater and technology.

Monsters of Grace also marks a much-anticipated reunion between avant-garde director Robert Wilson and composer Philip Glass, whose first collaboration in 1976 resulted in Einstein on the Beach, still recognized as a landmark in experimental performance. Ingenuity doesn't always guarantee widespread exposure, however, and while audiences in New York and some larger cities in the United States have experienced Wilson's work, much of his renown has come in Europe. Glass, on the other hand, has enjoyed commercial recognition stateside--scoring such films as Kundun, Koyaanisqatsi, and The Thin Blue Line--though relatively few know of his early connection to Wilson. Producer Jedediah Wheeler approached Wilson and Glass in 1992 about creating a touring opera, and though he found them willing, they were also full of stage and set ideas that would barely fit into the Metropolitan Opera, let alone a university concert hall.

Enter Jeff Kleiser and Diana Walczak, who soon convinced the skeptical Glass and Wilson that with the help of state-of-the-art software, the production could accommodate endless visual possibilities--and would be entirely portable to boot. Some six years and 200,000 film frames later, Monsters has evolved into a sleek 68-minute spectacle that combines the latest in computer animation with ecstatic love songs based on the poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi, a 13th-century mystic, all set to a score performed live by Glass, a small, varied ensemble, and a vocalist.

According to Walczak, interviewed by phone while traveling by train in New York, each of the 13 scenes in Monsters took an average of five months to create, and demanded a team of 20 animators on both coasts. "It was like hand-stitching the most ornate robe," remarks Wheeler from his offices in New York. "It was an interesting contradiction. The results are up-to-the-minute, but the amount of manpower is so Old World."

The film portion of Monsters explores three kinds of scenarios created by Wilson: landscapes, still lifes, and portraits. Images such as a giant severed hand, a boy pedaling his bicycle slowly through a serene landscape, and an ocean expanding into the horizon are all part of a dream world created through the spectacle of stereoscopic film--which might be familiar to audiences in its cruder forms from sci-fi films of the '50s and '60s.

Kleiser and Walczak also created "synthespians," using a process that would intrigue any science-fiction buff. "Real people's heads were cyberscanned," says Walczak. "A laser goes around the person's head to capture its shape and texture. This image is wrapped onto a digital head which is then placed on a digital body." In early productions of the piece, live actors depicted a prototypic man, woman, and child, but in the completed version, these characters appear onscreen as silent participants in a cyber world.

With all of its bytes and bells, however, Monsters remains in essence a theater work. "At the end of the day it's not about the technology," observes Wheeler, who hopes more artists will experiment with computer animation onstage. "The event itself is about an exploration of the subconscious, the poetic, and the aesthetic, which really is the very opposite of what people associate with 3-D."


Monsters of Grace plays 8 p.m. Saturday at Northrop Auditorium; (612) 624-2345.

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