The Old Woman

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Photograph: Lucie Jansch
The Old Woman

The Old Woman. BAM Howard Gilman Opera House (see Off Broadway). By Daniil Kharms. Adapted by Darryl Pinckney. Directed by Robert Wilson. With Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission.

The Old Woman: In brief

Stage masters Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe perform a new piece based on the darkly absurdist work of Russian author Daniil Kharms, adapted by Darryl Pinckney and directed by avant-garde–establishment icon Robert Wilson.

The Old Woman: Theater review by Helen Shaw

When Daniil Kharms, the Russian absurdist-futurist, wrote about something inanimate, it tended to get away from him. Close the door on a corpse in your apartment (as his narrator does in the story "The Old Woman"), and it shifts position. Turn your back on a suitcase, and it sneaks off. Divert your attention for just a moment, and even the narrative subject will implode and vanish. Read Kharms and you too will be left grasping at—and delighted by—these elusive straws. Who better to stage him than director-designer Robert Wilson, High Priest of the Captured Moment? Kharms, suppressed and imprisoned by the Soviets (he starved to death in Leningrad in 1942), provides the perfect flickering spirit for Wilson's lapidary mise en scène. Indeed, The Old Woman may be my favorite of Wilson's past several creations; it throbs with abundant humor and a weird, angry energy that leaves the audience unable to look away.

It helps that Woman is also an unlikely double act between Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe (in matching black suits, whiteface and gray pompadours pointing in opposite directions). They play all the roles as mad Expressionist twins, antiselves, nightmare hosts from a music hall in Hell. They cart around two-dimensional props snatched out of Mayakovsky paintings, and the set itself performs: Slowly moving fluorescent tubes flicker behind a slatted screen, and beds float in midair, their spines broken and bent. Rich, deep colors flash and change, turning a face green, a hand red. Everything feels eerily familiar, perhaps because the performers (and Wilson) have plundered the museum; even the stunning curtain boasts a flying orange dog that seems to have danced out of a Chagall.

Wilson isn't always interested in transitions between scenes, so the seams are where the energy leaks out. Stagehands emerge, pacing slowly (apparently a good old-fashioned techie scramble would ruin the gestalt). This rhythm can be lacking in dynamic. We feel as though we've been given a gorgeous, pulsing painting to look at, and then, when we're not quite ready, an invisible master turns the page. The next image is also beautiful, but the pace of turning pages can be soporific.

Still, Dafoe and Baryshnikov rescue sagging moments. It's vaudeville, baby, and no MCs worth their salt would let the crowd get bored. Dafoe seems electrified; his face looks bigger every time we see him, each tooth visible from the back of the house. Baryshnikov's customary leonine grace makes him seem like a cat trapped onstage, making feints for the exit but pretending not to care. He oozes where Dafoe twitches; he flirts where Dafoe snarls. The show tries not to end: The two of them keep rushing back for additional scenes, accelerating their bizarre pace and cackling with nervous laughter. Even in the final klezmer-infused blast (Hal Willner's music plays its own wicked games) they try to start the show over, capering with the air of showmen who fear the hook.

Adapter Darryl Pinckney renders an already absurd text into a stunning series of repeated stanzas, which he then interleaves with other Kharms fragments. “This is how hunger begins / The morning you wake, feeling lively / Then begins the weakness,” our duo intones, sitting on a high swing in one of those infinite blue Wilson skies. The laughter is often bitter; we see photographs of artists murdered by the Soviet state. In one projection, Wilson shows us a 36-year-old Kharms at or near death, his starved cheeks and marble-white eyes terrifying. The most famous Soviet defector in the world, Baryshnikov shrugs elegantly beneath it. Adding to this painful complexity, Baryshnikov speaks many of his lines in the original Russian, so some thoughts hover in supertitles. Wilson seems to have even choreographed the poetry to sail above the action. Above and against an astonishing stage image—Dafoe in a Caligari-like forest—we read “You will see me in the window. You will see me in the doorway,” as the sonorous Russian rolls out. It's a fact of written language: Our eyes are drawn to it, we have to read it, we can't look away. Wilson has again trapped the slippery Kharms, this time in our minds: We're forced to speak for him, silently, to bid farewell with our own inner voices.—Theater review by Helen Shaw

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