PRINT November 2014


Robert Wilson’s The Old Woman

Robert Wilson, The Old Woman, 2013. Performance view, Palace Theatre, Manchester, UK, July 4, 2013. From the Manchester International Festival. From left: Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Photo: Lucie Jansch.

I ATTENDED two performances of Robert Wilson’s The Old Woman at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this past June, the first out of curiosity about what Wilson would do with the oddball coupling of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe, the second because I was ravenous for more. More of the miraculous mix of precision and spontaneity in the interplay of the performers, more of Wilson’s incandescent yet hard-as-nails stagecraft, more of Hal Willner’s pulsating score, and of Darryl Pinckney’s incantatory adaptation of Russian avant-garde writer Daniil Kharms’s short story “Starukha” (The Old Woman), written during the first decade of Stalin’s totalitarian rule.

A vaudeville in which the aspirations of Suprematism collide with the absurdities of Dada at their most grotesque, and set to a Jazz Age beat, The Old Woman has the compressed energy of the climactic Spaceship” movement of Philip Glass and Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach (in the original 1976 production, not the debased revival at BAM a few years back). But unlike in Einstein, there is no crescendo in The Old Woman, which sustains a single, fierce, mordantly comic level of intensity for its entire hour and forty minutes, albeit with a scattering of nearly still and speechless moments that last just long enough for the performers and audience to catch their breaths.

In teasing out the connection between The Old Woman and the nuclear-powered-spaceship scene in Einstein, one is tempted to describe Baryshnikov and Dafoe as the two charged particles produced by nuclear fission—comparable to each other but of different sizes. Costumed almost identically in black tuxedos and white shirts, their facial features obliterated by clown-white makeup and black lipstick, they would be difficult to tell apart were it not for a slight difference in their heights, their ties (Dafoe wears a bow tie, Baryshnikov a straight necktie), and their hilarious, mirror-image wigs. Crimped tight to the skull at the top, the fake hair is then pulled sideways into a single stiff cone that extends at a forty-five-degree angle, Dafoe’s to the right of his face, Baryshnikov’s to the left. While marking difference, the hairpieces also suggest that the two performers are each playing half of a single character, who, fused together, would have a ponytail on each side of his head. But perhaps the most brilliant aspect of the wigs is that they leave the nape of the neck bare. Thus, when the performers turn away from the audience, one of the most expressive and individualized parts of the anatomy is revealed—the place where, as it were, mind and body join.The line of Dafoe’s neck and shoulders brings to mind a pit bull, Baryshnikov’s an elderly panther.

Repeating each other’s words, volleying single actions back and forth between them, the two performers suggest the terrible isolation of Kharms, talking to himself through his writing. Unlike Mayakovski—a contemporary and admirer—Kharms did not commit suicide when Stalin came to power. Instead, he survived the 1930s by smuggling his absurdist visions into children’s literature, only to be imprisoned for anti-Communism in 1941. He starved to death in his cell the next year, during the Siege of Leningrad. If the text of Kharms’s “Starukha” provides Wilson with a brutal, fragmented, nightmare narrative—the Baryshnikov/Dafoe protagonist is prevented from fulfilling his desire to bring someone home because “there’s a dead old woman in [his] room”—then Kharms’s untitled poem about hunger, written during the same decade, is the accompanying refrain: matter-of-fact and horrific, even after two dozen repetitions.

This is how hunger begins:
The morning you wake, feeling lively,
Then begins the weakness,
Then begins the boredom;
Then comes the loss
Of the power of quick reason,
Then comes the calmness
And then begins the horror.

At once devastating and ecstatic, The Old Woman is a portrait of Kharms and a tribute to the astonishing tour de force that was the Russian avant-garde in the decade following the revolution. It is anarchic, delirious—all the more so because every aspect of the performance adheres to a hot jazz rhythm. Dafoe high kicks on the beat. Baryshnikov spirals down to the floor, off-balance and in slow motion, to the beat. Scenery appears and disappears and props change color, as if lit from within, to the beat. What is most fantastic about Baryshnikov and Dafoe is how alive they are to the moment and to each other, while speaking, gesturing, and dancing in time with Willner’s omnipresent score. In them, there are echoes of other comic duos: Abbott and Costello doing “Who’s on First?,” the Nicholas Brothers tapping to Cab Calloway’s big band in Stormy Weather (1943). To these, we now can add Baryshnikov and Dafoe in their (and Wilson’s) most inspired routine: In attempting to seduce each other, they are foiled not merely by inner visions of the “dead old woman” but by raucous eruptions of the “Tiger Rag.”

Robert Wilson’s The Old Woman will be performed at Royce Hall in Los Angeles, Nov. 14 and 15, and at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, CA, Nov. 21–23.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.