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The Apocalypse via Bob and Cher.

Granted, there were probably not many New Yorkers who attended both a performance of Robert Wilson's "The Days Before: Death, Destruction & Detroit III" at the Lincoln Center Festival and the Cher concert at Madison Square Garden that followed just days later. The fan bases of Bob and Cher probably don't overlap much.

But those who did sample the latest productions from these two disparate cultural icons -- this critic among them -- might have noticed some intriguing correspondences, some unnerving echoes: Wilson, the quintessential highbrow theater artiste, and Cher, the quintessential popular entertainer, are in many ways on the same page.

In this pre-millennial moment, for example, the Apocalypse seems to be on just about everybody's mind. "The Days Before" features great piles of apocalyptic imagery from the poetry of Christopher Knowles and the show's primary source text, Umberto Eco's novel "The Island of the Day Before," the latter selections spoken in a very apocalyptic tone indeed by the Irish actress Fiona Shaw.

Eschewing any overt references (here the former infomercial queen proved more subtle than the oft-obscure Mr. Wilson), Cher made her own apocalyptic statement with -- what else? -- a wig. She opens her concert sporting an atomic pile of nuclear-red cuffs, a tonsorial symbol, if you will, of armageddon. The singer described the accompanying ensemble, an astonishing mishmash of chain mail and synthetic fabrics of more recent invention, topped off with suede boots fit for the Alaskan tundra, as" `Braveheart'--meets-Bozo," but it was equally redolent of the post-nuclear landscapes of the "Mad Max" movies.

These two artists are of course working from opposite poles of the stylistic landscape. For all its pageantry, Wilson's aesthetic is distinctly minimalist; Cher's idea of minimalism is a Bob Mackie bodysuit. And yet with Wilson's show divided into 12 discrete scenes, forgoing narrative, and accompanied by a soundtrack courtesy of Japanese former techno-popster Ryuichi Sakamoto, it was structurally more akin to a fancy pop concert than a play.

Both shows were marked by the kind of freewheeling eclecticism that Wilson has long championed in his mixed-media adventuring, although it is perhaps time to recognize that ethnic mixing doesn't quite pack the aesthetic punch it used to, now that it has seeped into the mainstream. In fact, one would be hard pressed to decide whether Wilson or Cher's show was more culturally eclectic.

While Wilson's opened with a Tibetan chant, featured Kabuki stylings and a Turkish opera singer, Cher's extravaganza featured backup dancers wearing body suits styled with Maori markings and sporting multicolored dreadlocks. (They might have been fight at home on Wilson's stage, although they certainly would not have been flinging their limbs about with such showbizzy vigorousness.) Cher also performed a song partly in Italian, and accompanied it with flamenco stylings-- how's that for ethnic fusion?

Although Wilson's works tend to appeal to arts cognoscenti, in these postmodern days the divisions between high and low culture are all but disappearing. If one had to guess which of the two shows being discussed here featured a portion of Barry Manilow's "Mandy," you'd probably bet on Cher: a best-and-worst-of-`70s medley, perhaps? But you'd be wrong: It was Knowles, in one of the more mysterious moments from Wilson's "Days Before," who sampled that top 40 sobfest. Cher had the privilege of sampling herself, in a medley of "Half Breed," "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves" and "Dark Lady."

In truth, "The Days Before" was often bewildering, with its dense text more often than not distracting from or confusing any attempts to let its imagery work on a more sensual level. Although Wilson stresses that his work isn't "intellectual" per se, the imagery of "The Days Before" was so disjointed and freighted with strangeness that it was impossible not to try to derive some sort of concrete meaning from it and relate it somehow to the almost nonstop barrage of spoken text.

Cher communicates with her audience in a far more straightforward manner, but her show was not without its obscurities. Who was that guy on giant stilts, with gray beard and fright wig, walking through the middle of a random production number? What do all the gothic trapping have to do with a Bon Jovi song?

Both Wilson and Cher are strongest on visual allure, and there was some striking imagery in both shows: in "Days Before," a giant blue birdlike figure hovering above the stage, and a ghostly tableau depicting the killing of the Russian royal family; chez Cher, a giant plastic inflatable lava lamp, and, of course, the endless parade of outlandish costumes. (If you leave a Wilson show humming the scenery, you leave a Cher concert humming the sequins.)

From the thick soup of imagery and sound in "Days Before," what emerged clearly in the final moments was Shaw's rendering of the conundrum that apparently drives Eco's "Island of the Day Before," a novel about a man striving in vain to find the geographic point that separates yesterday from today.

Well, hello Umberto! All you need is one look at the flesh-colored Lycraclad figure of Cher, strutting energetically and wagging her wigs in front of 15,000 adoring fans at age 53, to know that the woman has found that fine fine-- and not just metaphorically either, buddy. "If I Could Turn Back Time" -- the diva's rock anthem hit of a few comebacks back -- might be Cher's own catchier distillation of the ideas of Mr. Eco's rather impenetrable-sounding book.

Ageless in her fame and famously ageless, Cher is the human embodiment of the idea that the past is forever with us, and that time is not necessarily a destructive force (assuming one has an ample cosmetic surgery budget).

Of course, a work with "death" and "destruction" in the title would tend to take the opposite view. In that respect, the magically youthful pop star indeed made a startling contrast with 90-year-old Turkish opera singer Semiha Berksoy, who wanly warbled the "Liebestod" from "Tristan und Isolde" in "The Days Before" while wearing something in gold lame that Cher would not likely have risked in her 20s. In the context of "The Days Before," filled with much doom-laden imagery, it was hard not to find the frail Berksoy's presence sad and vaguely gruesome. And yet there she was, onstage, singing her heart out. One feels that Cher would have appreciated the effort; at age 90, she herself may still be playing arenas, singing "Believe" with all the conviction she can muster, resplendent in Bob Mackie beading.

Wilson appreciated it as well. Of Berksoy's participation, Wilson said in an interview, "People said I shouldn't do it, but she's been practicing, and she wants to do it, so what the hell." "What the hell" is an ethos that has served Cher well over the decades. "If you last long enough..." she mused to the audience at one point, referring to one of many career misfires. Wilson, whose career has spanned roughly the same three decades as Cher's, has had his own ups and downs, hits and misses. His magnificent "Lohengrin" was detided at its Met premiere and cheered six months later. `The Days Before" was greeted with critical indifference; Cher's got a hit disco single. And so it goes in the wonderful world of showbiz, vulgar or elitist. What the hell.
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Title Annotation:Review; review of Robert Wilson's "The Days Before: Death, Destruction & Detroit III" and Cher's concert at Madison Square Garden
Article Type:Concert Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 19, 1999
Previous Article:I'M THE ONE THAT I WANT.

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