Robert Wilson's The Old Woman | reviewed by Renate Stendhal | Scene4 Magazine January 2015

Renate Stendhal


January 2015

When Robert (“Bob”) Wilson shows a piece of theater in the States, it’s an event—whether you are a Wilson fan or not. In his new creation, The Old Woman, he brings big names of experimental dance and theater onto the stage: Russian dance icon Mikhail Baryshnikov and actor Willem Dafoe. Not so long ago, I revisited Wilson’s early 5-hour master piece Einstein on the Beach [*] (on its 40-year revival tour). This time, I was once again impressed by the most prominent director of Europe’s experimental theater landscape.




Early on, in the seventies, the gay director moved toward an almost emotionless, cool, slow-motion theatrical universe of  sparse, quasi abstract perfection. He still designs his own sculptural sets and costumes and is a lighting fanatic. Light design, for him, is an element of architecture and always comes first in his conceptual Gesamtkunstwerk. The actor or dancer (cum text and music) interacts with Wilson’s stage architecture. The Wilsonian body in position and motion is the sophisticated marionette of an obsessive puppeteer who loves to slow down and hone gestures and movements (as well as words) to their most minimal and most effective essence. Then he likes to repeat, and repeat again, proving Gertrude Stein’s point that nothing repeated is ever the same: “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” The result is always fascinating, strange, alien, so stripped of anything extra in terms of emotion that spectators are usually divided: Is Wilson’s theater a quasi autistic universe, sterile and ultimately unengaging? Or is it the ideal embodiment of a post-modern aesthetic unconcerned with meaning, and admirable for its precision, its physical feat of perfection??




Cal Performances in Berkeley started into a brilliant season this fall with the Paris Th√©atre de la Ville presenting Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, followed by famed tenor Ian Bostridge in Benjamin Britten’s “Parable for Church Performance,” titled Curlew River. The crowning third was Wilson’s The Old Woman (an international coproduction recently also shown in Europe and New York).


The piece is based on a novella by a fairly unknown Russian modernist, Daniil Kharms, son of an anarchist, born in 1905 and killed as a victim of Stalin’s persecutions in 1942. Kharms’ small body of avant-garde work, in particular The Old Woman, has been called “pre-Beckett,” “early Ioncesco,” and somewhat “Kafkaesque.” Wilson and his dramatist Daryll Pinckney cut the novella into twelve stark, clipped scenes – absurdly comical nightmares of an author and an old woman who ends up dead on the floor but isn’t dead – a story quite as nonsensical and repetitive as Gertrude Stein’s novel Blood on the Dining Room Floor.




The style is like nothing you have ever seen before, and yet it’s ur-echt Wilson if you remember other (dance) theater creations he staged with professional performers, like The Black Rider [**]: there are stylistic elements of vaudeville and music hall, Punch and Judy, slow motion and stop motion, Commedia dell’arte, Cabaret and  Grand Guignol. Throw in some silent movie expressionism, video projections, shadow play, and (for The Old Woman) Tango – then imagine high speed and a seamless fluidity of all theses styles thanks to the performing stars. Baryshnikov and Dafoe move in unison, running, skipping, waltzing and stepping, with constantly astonishing ease and originality. Both represent the writer in the novella, an author split in two, his self and his double, and both in turn impersonate additional characters – a friend, a girlfriend, and the old woman of the title, who is a bully and refuses to die. In black tie, with clownish Dada faces and pomaded wigs they look like queer hairdressers in a 19th century picture book  (think of the German Struwwelpeter [***] ). They are almost identical, exchangeable like two wind-up toys from the same box.




It took me some time to determine who was who: can Baryshnikov really speak in such a melodious, even suave baritone without a Russian accent? Can he really move without any display of ballet mannerism and self-conscious curlicues? “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” the master of  11 pirouettes (Youtube) [****]  admitted. Dafoe,  seasoned experimental theater hound after 26 years with the New York Wooster Group, reported that he was at first intimidated by having to move and dance alongside Baryshnikov, but the two of them sweated it out under Wilson’s implacable command, creating dance theater par excellence.




In this  fantastical, almost two-hour pas de deux, they clown around, persecute, trick  and torment each other with Chaplinesque cruelty, but they also court each other, creating a certain gay subtext to their antics. Baryshnikov (who used to be a decidedly male ballet dancer in his youth) takes on the feminine parts with subtle grace and, like an acrobat on a tight-rope, toes the line without ever falling into mincing or standard female impersonating. Even his simplest moves are interesting. There is a moment when he is in shirt sleeves and puts his dinner jacket back on. In his way of slipping into the jacket you can’t tell if the suddenly bulky, sculptural-looking piece of clothing takes over the man’s body or vice versa. It’s a one-second movement – one’s eye is too slow to catch the magician’s trick – and it’s enchanting.




There are moments of poetry, of sudden stillness when the projector lights bleed out the colors and the scenery goes flat like a story board, then pops back into full color, bursting with life. There are moments of sadness and longing (could it be for sanity? for love?) and even something like a moonlit night accompanied by the aching violin of Arvo P√§rt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel.” There is also a lot of talk, hard to catch, with subtitles impossible to read above the general glare of Wilson’s lighting. Baryshnikov and Dafoe’s characters screech and sing, sob, giggle, hoot and shoot at each other, switch from English to Russian and back; they wise-crack and hold forth about the horror of hunger, about women falling in droves from windows, about a miracle worker who doesn’t perform miracles, and other absurdities, like asking a clock without fingers what time it is, concluding, “So that’s what it is. That’s what it is.”


But what is it? 




It hardly matters in a universe where one isn’t sure any more how to count. Does seven come before eight or after? They ask everybody, about this loss of count “An amazing thing happened to me today…” They ask the store clerk and are “sad because her words had no meaning.” An ironic swell of movie music takes care of the sentimentality. At some point one of them remembers, “how I learned to kiss myself on the foot.” He describes it and concludes: “I was happy.” Sappy violins follow. The audience laughs. In another scene the two sit like lost birds on a swing high up in the sky and philosophize (“I can’t stand dead women and children.” “A straight line broken at every point is a curve…”) while a white toy airplane looms nearby and suddenly turns fire-red.




What matters is the beauty of the execution, the perfect synchronicity of movements and puppet-like hand gestures, the implacable comic timing of gags and tricks, the illusory champagne-bubble-ease of the whole desperate rigmarole. And there is the magic of the stage Wilson has created for the duo. Futuristic, edgy-unreal furniture, screwed window frames hanging in empty space, objects out of a kindergarten book (a green cage and blue-striped cock), paper cut-out trees and skies in raspberry or other luscious colors of early Kandinsky paintings; then the brightly colored tragi-comical Dada farce snaps into stark, minimalist black and white. Suddenly a street scene right out of a Hollywood B-movie: A blinding light shaft high as a studio wall, the light reflection thrown across the floor at an angle, the menacing (or menaced) silhouette of the author in the door frame.




In one of the funniest scenes the author (Baryshnikov) tries to get rid of the old woman (Dafoe). A gigantic green suitcase glides in for stuffing the corpse. Baryshnikov winds invisible ropes around the very lively corpse and at the same time ropes her/him in with Tango moves that culminate in a suspenseful slow-motion embrace. Still, Dafoe ends in the suitcase. The stage cracks back  into black and white. Another street scene. On one side a tower of open slats with a neon-lit bar that lazily scrolls up: a typical Wilsonian image of a sky scraper. On the other side, a few neon-lit slats of a train track, blinking in succession to evoke the direction and speed of the next train to come. In between, the two actors sit next to each other with attach√© cases, too small to hold more than virtual skeletons. “They will catch me this very day…”


The attach√© cases make off on their own. Dafoe repeats the story, “how I learned to kiss myself on the foot.” This time, it ends, “I was happy, and I understood the happiness of others.” Randy Newman’s “I’ll be Home” plays. The two turn their faces and look at each other with… who knows?  Their look has the suggested eloquence of “So that’s what it is. That’s what it is.”




All Photos Courtesy of Cal Performances




* Stendhal’s review “Einstein on the Beach Then and Now”


** Stendhal’s review “The Black Rider”




**** Baryshnikov’s 11 Pirouettes


Video excerpt on YouTube:




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Scene4 Magazine: Renate Stendhal

Renate Stendhal, Ph.D., is a writer and
writing coach based in San Francisco
and Pt. Reyes, and a Senior Writer for Scene4.
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January 2015


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