Ming Wong, Persona Performa, 2011. Performance views, Museum of the Moving Image, New York, November 10, 2011. Photos: Paula Court.

EVEN PEOPLE who have never seen a frame of The Seventh Seal (1957) know that Ingmar Bergman is a humorless Swede obsessed with sex and death. It’s a reductive caricature, of course, but sometimes such popular shorthand can be a generative artistic device. This seems to be what Ming Wong was angling for with Persona Performa, his live dance/theater/film work inspired by Bergman’s 1966 masterpiece, Persona. Each element of Wong’s expansive project, developed and presented at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of New York’s ongoing Performa 11 biennial, riffed on received notions of the director and the film, occasionally building on Bergman’s ideas but more often merely pantomiming them.

During a multimedia preamble to the show’s live action, a wall of windows in the museum’s lobby became a screen upon which were projected beach scenes from Faro Island (the setting for Persona, and the director’s beloved home). In an upstairs gallery, a rotating gallery of faces were overlaid to become one mutating visage, mimicking the film’s iconic split-screen head shot of Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson, the vintage black-and-white film stock cycling through a gloriously noisy EIKI projector. The performance portions of the evening built on the film’s dialogic binaries and theme of interchangeability. Twenty-four performers (the number corresponds to the standard frames per second in 35-mm film) of different races, genders, and sizes—each outfitted in matching Ullmann-esque blonde wigs and slips with one side black fabric and the other white—paraded down the museum’s staircase and past spectators before disappearing and then reappearing back atop the stairs, like a looped film reel. Each pass offered a different take on the film’s central psychological break.

The audience was then ushered inside the museum’s main theater. The stage became a film set, with two video cameras on tracks gliding past performers, who had all been coupled off; they mimed select moments from Persona, which were projected onto the screen above them. Despite Wong’s overdependence on racial and gender reorientations for dramatic frisson—didn’t Bergman’s ode to isolation and identification already have universal appeal?—and embarrassing stunt casting of a local teen as narrator Ingmar, the work finally took flight in the finale. Pairs of dancers, imprisoned together in single slips, suggested different ways for bodies and personas to blur. It almost made me forget Wong’s laughable inclusion of Death himself as a goofy specter, drifting in from The Seventh Seal as shorthand of the shallowest kind.

Eric Hynes