Commissioned for Berlin's 750th anniversary celebration, Robert Wilson and David Byrne's four-hour adaptation of the ancient Gilgamesh epic is very Germanic. Luckily, it picks up steam as it goes along. Set in the 19th century, The Forest uses the legend to symbolize the effecs of the Industrial Revolution: the severing of man's connections to God and nature, the unequal interdependence of industrialist and laborer (Gilgamesh here is a factory owner who takes on the wild man Enkidu as partner), and man's subsequent bewilderment in the face of mortality. A lot of the performance at BAM's Next Wave Festival is so-so. Wilson leaps in and out of the legend as casually as his actors, speaking a text by Heiner Muller and Darryl Pinckney, switch from German to English and back. Byrne's score features some lovely writing for strings and woodwinds, a few haunting choral passages, and quite a bit of mediocre imitation-baroque music. and the two mimed "knee plays" are completely expendable. but Wilson's images, many borrowed from his previous work and from Beckett (a surprise link), are stunning: a bare-breasted, blindfolded woman brandishing knives; a ballerina on pointe and a tiny crone walking some hairy monster; Gilgamesh's chic mother (the superb Eva-Maria Meineke) obliviously playing cards all night. And Howie Seago's final scene as Enkidu -- trussed up in black tie, he knocks over his chair, walks downstage, lies face flat, and expires -- shows the power of stylized emotions that Wilson has often sought and rarely achieved before.

7 Days, December 14, 1988