The morning after I saw The Old Woman, a Robert Wilson staging with text by Darryl Pinckney, I studied a series of photographic stills from the production, and read the short story by the early-Soviet-era writer Daniil Kharms that is the basis for Pinckney’s adaptation. Doing so took me about 10 minutes. Watching the visually exact, arrestingly beautiful evening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House, starring Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov, took about 90.
Ninety minutes in a Wilsonian world is equivalent to double that time in anyone else’s. To buy a ticket to one of his productions is to learn the truth of the old story told by the Hollywood director Billy Wilder after he was taken to an instalment of Wagner’s Ring cycle. “The opera started at 8. At midnight I looked at my watch. It said 8.15.”
As I wear no timepiece, I cannot say I glanced at my watch during The Old Woman. If I had, though, I would have been echoing a visual motif here. One of Wilson’s tableaux features a large yellow clock with a red hand. The clock is held by Baryshnikov. At least I think it was he: both performers are covered in cakey white make-up with grotesque, cartoonish touches. This is not an evening for those craving Misha the glamourpuss.
Nor for those hungry for narrative. The performers offer snatches of stories, with Baryshnikov sometimes speaking Russian. In their telling, old women fall from windows, suffer from hunger, or feel flashes of terror. With such subject matter, is it any wonder that Kharms has been compared to Kafka?
Or that Baryshnikov and Dafoe, with their eccentric vaudevillian movements, have been likened to Laurel and Hardy? I was reminded instead of the British comic duo French and Saunders, particularly those routines in which they puncture the pomposity of long-winded artistes, of whom Robert Wilson, accomplished as he is, must occasionally be included.
If Misha and Willem do not fit the physical mould of classic comedy double acts (one thick, one thin), they certainly fall within the tradition of old-school performers who elongate their bits of business to engage an audience. If I was sometimes immune to their protracted charms, I can profess nothing but admiration for performers who continue to challenge themselves and the expectations of their followers.
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