A boy holding a luminescent cube tosses paper airplanes from a tower, while beneath him a train repeatedly inches forward across the stage, then retreats.
A woman sits in a high window of a building gesturing with her hands as a crowd gathers outside to the wail of a tenor saxophone.
A chorus, accompanied by a haunting violin solo, sings the numbers from one through eight again and again, so rapidly they begin to sound like nonsense syllables.
This is "Einstein on the Beach," the epic — and plotless — opera in four acts that premiered 36 years ago and is having its first fully staged revival in 20 years. It's a collaboration among three of the most creative and unconventional minds of the last 50 years: Philip Glass (music and text), Robert Wilson (sets, lighting and direction) and Lucinda Childs (choreography and spoken text).
Seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Wednesday night, "Einstein" is still a wonder to behold — and a test of endurance. The work runs 4 hours and 15 minutes with no intermission. Audiences, who seem to have snapped up every available ticket, are invited to get up and walk around outside during the performance. Many take advantage of the offer, but most come back.
They come back because "Einstein" is a mesmerizing piece of theater whose cumulative effect makes up for the slow pace and sometimes maddening repetitions of music and text. The creators want you to lose all sense of time as you watch and listen, letting music and text work their hypnotic effect. Once you surrender, it's worth the trip.
Though it seemingly unfolds at random, "Einstein" is actually tightly structured, with musical themes and pieces of text that recur throughout the night as it moves toward a climax and resolution. There are big set pieces involving a train, a trial and a spaceship. Separating these are five interludes for chorus and two actors (Helga Davis and Kate Moran) called "Knee Plays" because they join the other scenes together. And there are two extended dances that come as welcome bursts of pure energy.
The large ensemble of cast members, many of them veterans of previous "Einstein" productions, perform with amazing precision and commitment, as do the musicians who accompany them.
Though this is certainly no traditional biography, the figure of Albert Einstein looms over the opera. Violinist Antoine Silverman sports the physicist's disheveled white hairstyle; the chorus members stick out their tongues at the audience, like Einstein in the famous photograph; a page of his mathematical computations flashes on a screen; and there's a reference to Bern, Switzerland, in 1905 — the place and time when Einstein published his theories of relativity.
We also see one result of these theories — the development of the atomic bomb. But the devastation of a nuclear explosion that concludes the spaceship scene is not the final image we take away. Instead, a humble bus driver, played by Charles Williams, appears to tell a rambling tale of two lovers on a park bench in the moonlight. His story, and the opera, ends with a kiss.
Performances at BAM continue through Sunday. Then the production moves to Berkeley, Calif., from Oct. 26-28, and later to Mexico City and Amsterdam before winding up in Hong Kong next March.