Old Woman: a dazzling journey of perception
Baryhsnikov’s and Dafoe’s performances are like a clockwork mechanism
On Thursday, one of the greatest theatrical events of the year in Buenos Aires opened at the Opera Allianz: The Old Woman, a play that was very successfully presented — with sold-out performances — in New York, Paris and the most important international festivals, performed by two top-notch celebrities such as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe, and directed by Texan Robert Wilson, visual artist and one of the most relevant theatre directors in the world.
The Old Woman is based on different stories or poems by Russian absurdist writer Daniil Kharms — the play is titled as one of his stories — and adapted by Darryl Pinckney, who in the hand programme describes Kharms’s hard life, marked by the Soviet persecution, and his production that “is not openly opposed to the Soviet regime, but neither is it a codified protest — his writing is more like stems sprouting from the cracks in the pavement…his stories deal with the helplessness of being alive, the properties of the state of conscience, of how the mind goes on thinking, prepared and alive, even in the middle of a nightmare.”
The Old Woman, 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, she seems to die right there, 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 goes to his friend’s with whom he gets drunk and talks about death and God. The borders between dream, hallucination and reality are blurred throughout the whole story and it becomes crazier and crazier as it moves forward.
But this story, interspersed with others by Kharms — such as the one about old curious women that fall from windows, or another one about a red-haired man that in fact didn’t have hair or eyes or nose or even a body — is not followed in detail according to a traditional narrative style. Instead, it is just allusively referred to through vignettes of sorts where Baryshnikov and Dafoe take turns performing — and exchanging — the characters: the former sometimes in Russian, his mother tongue, and the latter in English, always with subtitles in Spanish.
One could certainly affirm that Wilson paints with light, and this is clear from one of the first scenes when the two actors, who with their faces painted in white as the typical mimes, are seated almost indistinguishable on a hanging hammock repeating a Kharms poem about how hunger leads to horror, while the background changes colours. The whole production is a constant unfolding of colours through high-technology devices. What is most impressive is how the very objects that appear onstage — a plane, the figure of a chicken, irregular and impossible windows, beds or chairs, a bottle, trees or a fake bird, a string of sausages, or even the faces of the actors — may suddenly change their colours thanks to light effects. Just to let oneself be carried away by the visual aspects can turn the viewer’s experience into a dazzling journey of perception. Not by chance, Wilson’s set and light designs have been considered museum installations themselves.
But of course, there is also the incredible work of the actors. Wilson is just as thorough with the changes of light as he is with the movements onstage, including the displacement and gestures of the performers, all marked by sudden cuts. 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 the other non-verbal languages. So what’s important is not just what the actors say, but also their physical attitudes.
In this sense, the Wilsonian performer is in fact closer to a dancer: he or she has to avoid becoming absorbed by their own emotions and instead focus on the infinitesimal movements of their body and their internal rhythms, always at the service of the space that surrounds them and the “body” of the whole staging.
On the other hand, Wilson seems to give the same relevance to the different intonations of the same phrase than to the meaning of it. That is why the same line is repeated again and again with different intentions, as if the text were a minimalist music score.
Baryhsnikov’s and Dafoe’s performances are like a clockwork mechanism. They alternate each other or interweave perfectly; they sometimes seem identical, but there is always some detail that makes a difference, beginning with Baryhsnikov’s high-pitched voice contrasted with Dafoe’s grave and resounding voice. They are a couple reminiscent of Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but they cover a wide range of genres or aesthetics according to the mood of each scene: vaudeville, Chaplinesque clown, Commedia dell’ arte, cartoons or music hall at humorous moments; mime techniques or Tim Burton’s universe at the most brutal or sad parts.
The music ranges from Bye Blues by Frederick Hamm to Innocent When You Dream by Tom Waits. One of the most moving scenes, a bittersweet moment, is when they dance Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Pärt under an artificial moon.
The Old Woman is full of dream-like and surrealistic elements which produce onstage poetry. Wilson invites the audience to make free associations, avoiding the all too rational thought and leaving space for mystery. Perhaps some viewers were expecting another kind of production with a more conventional narrative; indeed, during and after the première many people were keen on voicing their perplexity and discomfort. Maybe it is a production more addressed to a festival than to a mainstream Corrientes Avenue theatre.
But it can also challenge theatre-goers imagination just like the following question Wilson himself fired to close a master class he gave in Buenos Aires in 2001: “What does a baby dream?”
Working with Bob Wilson
The scenes oscillate between funny and cruel features, “light” and “dark” situations. In this sense, light design is crucial for Bob Wilson: “Usually I start with light first and then I focus on the movement, adding the text and audio elements later…Finally, I work with makeup and costumes design, and define the construction of time and space…As there is not only one narrative, one is allowed to assemble and unassemble with a certain freedom”, he says. He also told the media that he chose Baryshnikov and Dafoe because they are complementary, and even though they seem to take turns playing A or B, eventually they are performing only one character, as if the whole piece were a long monologue. It is the first time Baryshnikov works with Wilson onstage, and Dafoe — who had already taken part in Wilson’s The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic — helped him “decipher Bob’s almost pictorial approach.” And the Russian actor and dancer adds: “Working with Bob Wilson is not an easy task. The process of rehearsals is intense, demanding, and requires a versatility I had never had. For one moment, you are a silent movie actor, another you are a vaudeville artist, and the next you are a Noh theatre performer. All this comes together with the precision of the staging and Bob’s light design. In some way, this is restrictive, but finally, he gives the performers the freedom to find what he is looking for.”