20/20 Blake

By Rosenberg, Scott | American Theatre, April 1997 | Go to article overview

20/20 Blake


Rosenberg, Scott, American Theatre


A Byte of Blake

In the case of William Blake, the word "visionary" is no piece of critical hyperbole: Blake claimed to receive visits in his garden from spirits who guided his art - rarely in orthodox directions.

In 20/20 Blake, latter-day stage visionary George Coates tries to give form to the theatre of Blake's mind, using technologies unimagined in the poet's day. While Blake had to make do with hand priming, engraving, watercolors and words to animate his home-grown mythology, Coates brings to bear the full arsenal of multimedia theatre design that he has been assembling and perfecting in the Bay Area for two decades: most impressively, three-dimensional slide and video projections that envelop and transport the performers - and that can transform an everyday audience, with the help of 3-D glasses, into a crowd of visionaries of a different kind.

High-tech stagecraft

For Coates, 20/20 Blake represents several different kinds of departures. His recent works - chiefly Invisible Site (1992), Box Conspiracy (1993) and Twisted Pairs (1996) - have turned high-tech stagecraft in on itself, exploring the dazzling promises and subtle psychological threats of interactive computer technology. But particularly with Twisted Pairs, Coates had begun to feel like he was repeating himself on the subject. And so his retreat from the digital present to Blake's era also marks an important step forward - as does his partnership with a new composer for most of 20/20 Blake's score. Adlai Alexander brings a more varied melodic palette and a more complex vocal writing to the Coates stage than his previous collaborator, Marc Ream, seemed able to muster in recent works. (Pop wizard Todd Rundgren also contributes one brief, energetic number, worked unobtrusively into the show.)

20/20 Blake weaves its projections and music with Blake's lyrics and imagery into a 75-minute operatic tapestry of the Blakean universe. Incidents from the poet's life - including the death of his brother, the death-mask he had made while he was still alive, and his commission to engrave teapot-catalog designs for china merchant Josiah Wedgwood - are freely mixed with tableaux re-creating Blake's artworks. These illustrate either his own private mythologies or his ironic take on traditional myths: God creating Adam, the body of Abel found by Adam and Eve, good and evil angels.

Particularly in the works Coates concentrates on - The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and The First Book of Urizen - Blake performed an inconsistent but powerful reworking of traditional Christian iconography. For instance, the Old Testament's creator God became a tormented demiurge named Urizen, jealous, solitary and ultimately trapped in his own nets of law and reason. …

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