The Old Woman is many things, but a linear narrative in dramatic form it is not. Adapted from a Daniil Kharms story by Darryl Pinckney and staged by Robert Wilson, this astonishingly inventive production, now playing at BAM, is faithful to its Russian avant-garde roots. Disconnections, flirtations with meaninglessness, and gestures toward chaos are strewn throughout it. Yet every moment is so beautifully choreographed and composed—like a dance, but also like a picture—that one feels a rigorous sense of purpose behind the whole venture.
You cannot hope to follow the plot unless you scrutinize the brief synopsis of the twelve scenes beforehand, and even then, what are you to make of summaries like “Hunger poem” or “The writer comes home to find the old woman crawling on the floor. He wants to kill her with a mallet” or “Dream poem 2″? They will hardly help you toward an understanding of events. Nor will the dialogue give you a great deal of assistance, especially since most of it is repeated at least five or six times, with the two actors exchanging, stealing, and mimicking each other’s lines. It’s best if you just give up and look at the stage picture, and meanwhile listen to the music the actors produce with their voices. To the extent it is about anything, The Old Woman is about how absurdity and reality are two sides of the same coin. This means it is also about the theater—which, among other things, relentlessly but also movingly repeats itself, over and over—and about human life, in which the mingling of joy and pain, fascination and boredom, is unavoidable and ever-present, especially if you are an avant-garde artist in Soviet Russia.
There are many heroes behind this production, most notably Wilson himself (who is responsible for the gorgeous set design and “lighting concept” as well as the precise direction) and his masterful lighting designer, A. J. Weissbard. Every scene is a delight to look at, in ways that never tire despite the eternal repetitions. But the whole thing would have foundered without the heroes out front—namely, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe. I can’t think of any two other actor-dancers who could have carried it off in this way, alternately mirroring and assaulting each other, defining themselves either as two halves of one person or a fully separate pair. The surprise here is that they are absolutely equal. It would take a lunatic, one would think, to go up against Baryshnikov in the dance department, or to measure oneself against Dafoe in the vocal department. And yet it turns out that Dafoe moves beautifully, while Baryshnikov has a striking stage voice (often deployed in Russian, and sometimes even in song). Because they are costumed alike—except that the extended single curls in their wigs point in different directions—it can almost be hard to tell them apart, with their painted mask faces and their agile black-and-white-clad bodies. But that is part of the pleasure of this show, just as the gradual exposition of their distinctive voices and movement styles is. They are truly an amazing pair, and the audience that gave them five ovations at the performance last night (clapping in unison, Russian-style) obviously felt privileged to watch them.