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The Old Woman: a date with a deluxe trio

Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov in a scene from Bob Wilson’s The Old Woman.
By Victoria Eandi
Herald staff

Bob Wilson to direct Mikhail Baryshnikov add Willem Dafoe at the Opera Allianz in BA

An unprecedented event will take place in Buenos Aires between August 21 and 30: The Old Woman, a play that was very successfully presented — with sold-out performances — in New York, Paris and the most important international festivals, will be staged at the Opera Allianz in Buenos Aires. It is performed by no less than Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe, and directed by Robert Wilson — a “deluxe trio.”

Texan Bob Wilson is a visual artist and one of the most relevant theatre directors of the world. And it goes without saying that the live presence of those actors in BA implies an exceptional occasion for any theatregoer as well as any film lover to be fascinated by authentic celebrities.

Based on a story by Russian absurdist writer Daniil Kharms, adapted by Darryl Pinckney, The Old Woman is a production by Baryshnikov Productions, Change Performing Arts and The Watermill Centre project and it will be brought by Fenix Entertainment Group Argentina. According to the press release, this show proposes “a visual magic universe that combines the pictorial essence of German expressionism with Tim Burton’s films.”

It is the third time a Bob Wilson creation will be visiting Buenos Aires. The first was Persephone, scheduled at II FIBA (Festival Internacional de Buenos Aires) in 1999. It was based on texts by Homer, Brad Gooch and Maita di Niscemi, and music by Rossini and Philip Glass. The play surprised BA audiences with its hypnotizing poetics, stemming from its static appearance and the beauty of its images, which managed to stir a profound aesthetic emotion.

The second time was two years ago, in 2012, as a tribute to John Cage on the 100th anniversary of the musician’s birth. In that particular case, Wilson himself was the performer of his own piece: he read Cage’s Lecture on Nothing, a conference about art, music, sound and silence, organized as a score. He was dressed in white — actually covered in white body paint — and he was mostly seated motionless at a table.

The stage was full of crumpled newsprint and backed with banners displaying fragments of Cage’s text. A blaze of white light at the front of the stage and blue light at the back completed the incredibly attractive visual aspect of the show. Quoting Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times, “his stage props belong in museums,” as if they were installations. Wilson had already worked in one-man shows such as HAMLET: a monologue or Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape.

The story by Kharms begins with its narrator, a writer who is short of money and of inspiration, asking an old woman for the time. The clock she’s carrying has no hands, but she tells him it’s a quarter to three. Later, she appears unexpectedly at his flat, where she seems to die on the spot, so he attempts to dispose of the corpse in a suitcase.

In the middle of it all, he meets a lady he really likes and runs into a friend with whom he gets drunk and talks about death and God. The borders between dream, hallucination and reality are blurred throughout the whole story which grows increasingly crazier as it moves forward.

While seeming to channel Dostoyevsky, The Old Woman also has a Beckettian air, in the sense of absurdist elements as well as a clownish couple reminiscent of Vladimir and Estragon from Waiting for Godot (and there are indeed many similarities between Kharms’ story and Beckett’s play). As happened in Lecture on Nothing, the actors also have their faces painted in white, pretty much like in Chaplin’s films. Baryshnikov and Dafoe take turns telling stories — the former in Russian, his mother tongue, and the latter in English. These tales reference Kharms’ fiction without following it in detail but allusively through tableaux vivants framed by vaudeville routines.

Ben Brantley provided an illustrative description of the play in the New York Times: “Nearly everything is stated again and again, until it is either divested of meaning or starts to seem hilarious. Which, when you think about it, is what happens in the comedy we call absurd: jokes become funniest when they’re repeated so often that they stop making sense. The Old Woman has the feeling of an eternal fugue, in which variations on a theme are circular and endless.” This is reminiscent of minimalism, a poetics Wilson seems to be very fond of — he worked with minimalist musician Philip Glass in the emblematic production Einstein on the Beach.

Wilson’s theatre could be defined as thought translated into images, sound and music. The text is just another element in his productions; it does not belong in a hierarchy, on top of other non-verbal languages.

In a master class Wilson gave in Buenos Aires in 2001, he pointed out, while speaking about Western drama, that “most of theatre is too intellectual.” On the contrary, his production is cut across surrealistic or dreamlike elements that promote free visual associations, suggestive images challenging the concept of space, or slow-motion movements which defy the notion of time and lead the viewer to focus their attention on usually unnoticed details.

In other words, Wilson invites the audience to let themselves get carried away, avoiding excessively rational thought. And The Old Woman is not the exception. Following Brantley: “As is often true of Mr. Wilson’s work, The Old Woman is lovely to look at and impossible to grasp as conventional narrative. Mr. Wilson operates according to his own algebraic laws, and if you don’t stop thinking and just give yourself over to them, you’re sunk.”

When and where

August 21 to 24 and August 27 to 30, at Opera Allianz (Corrientes 860). Tickets from 385 pesos available at the venue and on www.ticketek.com.ar.

@VictoriaEandi

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