Review: Robert Wilson directs Daniil Kharms’ “The Old Woman” at BAM

Willem Defoe (left) and Mikhail Baryshnikov  (right) in The Old Woman

When Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe stand shoulder to shoulder in The Old Woman, the symmetry of their side-dos makes them seem like two halves of the same demon. Gleefully mischievous and clownish, the two indeed function as one identity split in half: they repeat each other’s stories and swap characters even within the same scene. In their Kabuki-esque whiteface and matching outfits, the two bring a grace of movement and a fluidity of voice that astonish, lull, spook, annoy, and delight. The production stylizes and deconstructs Daniil Kharms’ enigmatic short story by the same name, which follows a writer dealing with an old woman who dies inexplicably in his flat. But as with most of director Robert Wilson’s work, narrative is not at the heart of the production. The emotional center of this absurdist staging lies in how Kharms’ charm both complements and bumps against the sometimes-alienating production aspects of the performance.

Like Mikhail Bulgakov, like Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, like so many of his Soviet contemporaries interested in the absurd, the metaphysical, or anything other than socialist realism, Kharms’ work was censored during his lifetime. To continue writing under such conditions must have seemed as absurd a concept as any that he wrote about. Only his works for children met with any success (ironically—he is said to have hated children). His work consists of pointless anecdotes, meaningless descriptions, and circular logics that lead the reader down the garden path of seeming coherence. In one of many digressions from the text of “The Old Woman”, Dafoe recites Kharms’ “Blue Notebook #10”:

Once there was a redheaded man without eyes and without ears. He had no hair either, so that he was a redhead was just something they said… He didn’t have anything at all. So it is hard to understand whom we are really talking about. So it is probably best not to talk about him any more.

Deadpan yet playful, Kharms’ oeuvre attempts to make light of the chaotic and irrational world in which he lived—to make the strange and the terrifying into things of humor and joy by using non-logic as an organizing principle.

Wilson takes this non-logic and runs far and away with it, but Kharms’ reassuring friendly presence keeps us from losing interest. This friendliness manifests itself in the deeply saturated, colored lights by A. J. Weissbard, the massive energy and tight choreography of Baryshnikov and Dafoe, and the whacky, angular, Dr. Seuss-like set design by Wilson himself. A colorful introduction that includes flying puppets, vaudeville slapstick humor and lively jazz music sets the quirky mood off the bat. This gives way to a stark, stripped down scene in which the actors sit perched on a swing, high above the stage, against a blank backdrop. Here, the first words of the play are taken from another of Kharms’ poems.

This is how hunger begins:
The morning you wake, feeling lively.
Then begins the weakness.
Then begins the boredom.
Then comes the loss
of the power of quick reason.
Then comes the calmness.
And then begins the horror. 

Written in the 1930s, the poem foreshadows Kharms’ eventual death from starvation in prison for anti-communist activity. Dafoe and Baryshnikov’s smiling faces undercut this esoteric tidbit as they repeat the poem for what seems an eternity. As the repetition continues, however, their delivery traces the course of the poem and their exaggerated facial expressions morph to fit the mood.

This scene, and indeed the entire production, map well onto these lines. The spectacular introduction makes sure that your eyes are wide-open; when the two start the poem, they have your rapt attention. Then, as they repeat the poem for the fourth or fifth time, fatigue sets in. Then, you start to wonder how much longer they can possibly go on. Then, your brain turns to mush and you can’t make sense of the already predictable phonemes that spew from their painted mouths. Then, it’s eerily, inexplicably soothing, beaten so dead that, actually, it’s quite funny. Then you slowly become aware of the dissonant screeching that builds ever so slightly in the sound design, and the negative space hanging in the air where their words used to be; now their mouths are moving, but you only hear the crescendo of some ineffable horror vibrating deep in your lungs. A light-switch flips loudly, and you’re thrust into another, lighter, more active mode. This early scene gives a taste of horror that never quite returns in intensity, but lingers underneath all of the funny stuff that follows.

This happens a lot. Long bouts of repetition give way to sudden, haphazard shifts in mood, mirroring Kharms’ writing style closely. Most of his work is very short (maybe a paragraph or two on average), and random occurrences often send his plots swerving into left field. The fragmented nature of Kharms’ work makes him a great source for Wilson, whose own work is elliptical and non-linear. However, the tension between their differences is where the interesting stuff comes out. For example, where Kharms is short, Wilson is long. A short anecdote about six too-curious women falling out of a window is repeated several times at breakneck speed only to be repeated twice more in slow motion. Super slow motion. Classic Wilson vocabulary (perhaps most notably from his Philip Glass collaboration, Einstein on the Beach). In a stunning show of grace, Baryshnikov’s body twists slowly, butoh-esque, as he crumbles to the ground. Meanwhile, Kharms’ humor shines through all the more poignantly because the slowness (and Hal Wilner’s accompanying music) gives the absurd anecdote a tender quality. That is, tender and sentimental, even as Dafoe explains coldly that he’s tired of this nonsense, and that he’d rather go to the market than watch old women splat on the concrete. Kharms’ matter-of-factness crashes against the balletic movement and hushed atmosphere to produce boisterous, if not slightly uncomfortable laughter from the audience.

This is the production’s major triumph—its ability to keep its audience engaged by juxtaposing diverse tones, modes, and rhythms. The staccato sound accents that accompany color and light switches chop up longer sections into digestible chunks, emphasizing certain words or phrases depending on where they are placed within a given cycle. Supertitles provide translation when Baryshnikov switches into his and Kharms’ shared mother tongue, but aren’t always necessary—you can guess which lines he’s saying by their placement. His mellifluous Russian is more of an aural device than a semantic one, the different cadence adding another layer of variety and musicality.

This is especially true in one of the final scenes of the play when the actors move synchronously, both responding to questions posed by an off-stage voice. Baryshnikov responds first in Russian. Dafoe responds second in English. A sort of Abbott and Costello routine plays out as the two defend themselves from an invisible interrogation. Though they speak different languages, the two actors always respond in the same tone. By turn they’re nervous, confused, angry, devious, over-joyed, and the list goes on. While the words match the movement well, and the dialogue itself is weirdly funny in the distinctly Kharms way, there is no rhyme or reason to the actors’ tactics. If we consider some of Dafoe’s statements in his New York Magazine interview, it seems like these tactics may very well be thrown together willy-nilly: “Try this page… Forget that… Say it three times… Say it backwards…” Dafoe explains of Wilson’s directing style. Sometimes, it feels like the actors are taking a certain tone or line reading simply because Wilson told them to, or else we’re seeing a snapshot of some experimental improvisation from early in the process. It seems fake. Transparent. Superficial. Artificial. Why sad here? Why happy there? Wouldn’t it feel the same if they were switched?

Speaking of artifice, it is puzzling why some transitions throughout the show are seamless, showcasing Wilson’s masterful ability to direct focus, while others are blatantly thoughtless: a group of stagehands walk on in the semi-dark and unhurriedly builds the set. These outsiders trespass into the world of the play, challenging an already elusive sense of cohesion. This effect comes to a head near the end of the show, when, in full light, a stagehand walks onstage to collect a prop. As she is walking off, an accent in the sound design shocks us. She smiles at the audience and hits a stylized pose in the movement vocabulary of the play. Perhaps the stagehands have been as carefully choreographed the entire play as the actors have been. Perhaps it’s not thoughtless at all.

Perhaps there is a reason that a certain poem is recited seven times and not eight (even if that the reason is Wilson’s own whim). But isn’t that what the absurd is? Isn’t the very concept of the absurd the acceptance of a chaotic world (or a chaotic play, or novel, or anything), despite the burning desire to force order from that chaos? Dafoe tells another anecdote in which the narrator forgets what comes first, seven or eight. He argues with his neighbors (none of whom can remember either) about this simple fact, when, “fortunately,” a nearby child falls off of a bench and breaks both of his jawbones. This distracts the group from their argument. Later, Baryshnikov recites a nostalgic anecdote about how he used to be so lithe of body that he could kiss his own foot, all in front of a projected image of Kharms. Then, as the anecdote comes to an end, Baryshnikov violently shatters his chair. It is a nostalgic retrospective on a simpler time in Kharms’ life. No! It laments an artistic life cut short by oppression. No! It is a more general statement about the fragility of life. No! The image is simply there because it looks interesting. NO! Well, luckily, the moment has passed and a vaudeville routine delivers a comic one-two punch; we are distracted from our argument. In any case, does the director even know what the sequence means? Maybe, but in Wilson’s own words, “If you know what it is, what’s the point of doing it?”

Jeff Kuperman is a director and choreographer of theater and film.