The Old Woman
Direction, set and lighting by Robert Wilson
Written by Daniil Kharms, adapted by Darryl Pinkney
performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe
Brooklyn Academy of Music
New York June 22, 2014
by Tom Phillips
copyright 2014 by Tom Phillips
First, the good news: At 66, Mikhail Baryshnikov is
still a master of movement. His feet look as graceful and fleet, and his physical expressions even more versatile and free than when he landed here as a defector from the Kirov Ballet in 1974. Baryshnikov and actor Willem Dafoe put on an all-star display of physical acting, in Robert Wilson's staging of stories and bits by Soviet absurdist writer Daniil Kharms. But their talents are largely squandered in a show that tries too hard to make a spectacle out of absurdity, and winds up looking more senseless than absurd.
Instead he goes to his friend's house to drink vodka and eat sausages, unfortunately raw because his friend has ruined his cooking pot by putting it on the stove with no water. Returning home, he opens the door and sees the decomposing old woman on the floor! In a rising state of anxiety, and feeling sick from the sausages, he stuffs the body in a suitcase and gets on a streetcar, planning to throw it in the dump. But when he runs to the toilet on the streetcar, he returns to find the suitcase gone. End of story.
This little gem has its own illogic, as well as its detailed picture of life in a dystopic worker's paradise. However, Wilson and his literary collaborator are not content to have it merely acted out. Instead they break the story into pieces and mix it up with episodes and dialogues from several other of Kharms's "Incidences," each of which has its own particular story to tell and point to make.
The result is a mishmash that might be described as "The World of Daniil Kharms," rather than any one of the tales and characters he so painstakingly wrought. For example, "Comprehensive Research" is a dialogue with a doctor who hands out "research pills" to unsuspecting subjects, who then die, so he can study the phenomenon of death. This surely has something to do with the power of the state and the scientific establishment in Stalinist society.
But these themes are not in the foreground of "The Old Woman," which gives us a more chaotic picture of local, domestic life, where the characters seem more neglected and abandoned than actively persecuted by the state. Nonetheless, a fragment about the research pill becomes a bit for Baryshnikov and Dafoe. Does this fill out the tale of "The Old Woman?" Or does it just muddy the picture? Wilson's "The Old Woman" is a very impressive production, with elegant sets and bizarre lighting effects, one after another, and lots of hoofing and mugging by the brilliant, hard-working performers. The script is minimalistic -- short bits, repeated for emphasis. Baryshnikov's English is often indistinct, but Dafoe defines the prose clearly, and Baryshnikov moves over to Russian with subtitles for his more emphatic lines. This is accompanied by an eclectic sound-track with songs by Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Jackie Gleason, a southern chain-gang etc., punctuated with sudden explosions.
The BAM crowd mostly came to see Baryshnikov, and they were not disappointed. He was a delight to behold, whether dying slow-motion, shuffling sideways moving from just the ankles down, or up on his tiptoes in a flamenco dance using the old woman's dentures as a castanet. But many who may have come to see a play walked out early, after an hour of sight-gags and out-of-context nonsense convinced them that this wasn't going to add up to much. Still, if it gets some people to read Daniil Kharms's "Incidences," it will have done some good. Kharms came of age between the two World Wars, and seemed to understand that things would end badly. He was persecuted and arrested under Stalin, and died in the siege of Leningrad in 1944, possibly of starvation in a prison hospital. In Russia, they say, all roads lead to disaster. Kharms seems to accept that, and for a brief fling, had fun with it. "The Old Woman" runs through June 29 at BAM.
copyright 2014 by Tom Phillips