On Daniil Kharms and Robert Wilson in L.A.
The Old Woman
By Myron Meisel
One of my seminal experiences in 40 years of Los Angeles theatergoing was the single performance in 1977 at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre of the first local exposure to the work of Robert Wilson, I was sitting on my patio this guy appeared I thought I was hallucinating, a collaboration with Lucinda Childs. Beyond being transfixing and innovative, it embodied a transformative vision for a total theater in which every constituent creative element – movement, text, light and sound and set design, tempo – was marshaled toward an unique sense of charged space and time. (Regrettably, a planned 2012 revival at REDCAT failed to materialize.) Obscure yet ineffably precise (and refreshingly, uncharacteristically brief), hallucinating not only heralded Wilson as a talent to dominate the next several generations (even if mostly abroad), but also created the sort of giddy excitement in unalloyed experimentation that has come to be a hallmark of the Los Angeles theater scene over the decades since.
Wilson’s subsequent experience in Los Angeles has not been happy: His landmark work commissioned for the 1984 Olympics Arts Festival, the CIVIL warS: A Tree Is Best Measured When It Is Down, failed to be mounted for lack of funding and has never been fully realized (and the Pulitzer Prize jury that selected it for the Drama award was overruled by the governing board). Until his original 1976 breakthrough rendition of the Philip Glass opera Einstein on the Beach was revived last year here on tour, Wilson had mostly been seen locally in the comparatively commercial guise of Puccini or The Black Rider, in which his transcendental mannerisms could often lapse into ennervated retreads of his now patented style.
Still, the famously measured Wilson can make his most formidable impression when he appears to strike quickly, as illustrated last weekend by two blink-and-they’re-gone performances at UCLA’s Royce Hall of The Old Woman, and flashed out with the star presences of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe. It was as transporting and convulsively stimulating as that one-night-stand of hallucinating had been, eerily echoing that show’s repeating monologue motifs and uttered essences, only bolder, more brilliant, staggeringly richer and more mature. For the usually stately Wilson, this might as well have been conceived on steroids, or stronger substances, though in its clear-headed puzzlements, it is wise and deep as well as expectedly resourceful.
This season alone, UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance has already dealt out not merely world-class but life-remembering pieces from Peter Brook and Simon McBurney, yet Wilson’s fancy-free adaptation of The Old Woman from the barely known Russian martyr Daniil Kharms, apparently a set of tossed-off bagatelles and asburdist vaudeville riffs, strikes me as an incomparable masterpiece, a crowning achievement for the 70-year old enduringly enfant terrible.
Superificially another exercise in quizzically minimalist feints at magical effects, The Old Woman projected a maximalist ambition for themes so outsized, they encompassed a dizzying array of existential concerns, not least the elemental threats of hunger, the specter of an intrusive state, and the ability to endure even with an omnipresent propensity for arbitrary violence towards others, and ultimately, even towards oneself.
Kharms, the nom-de-plume for an ostentatiously dandyish son of an anarchist rebel associated with the terrorist group that assassinated Czar Alexander II, came of age with the Bolshevik revolution and quickly became one of its renegade targets for persecution, finding inadequate refuge even after limiting his published material to successfully popular children’s works. Aligned with both the Futurists and the Formalists, he dabbled with anti-rational language and a poetry of pure sound, often self-contained in snippets of nonlinear anecdote. Finally consigned to imprisonment in a Leningrad mental institution, he is believed to have starved to death early during the Nazi siege. Most of his substantial work was never exposed during his lifetime. Rather, it was salvaged after his death by friends, and only surfaced as samizdat (Soviet dissident work) in the mid-1960s “thaw,” not to be published officially until the Glasnost era, and essentially remaining untranslated in English until a bare decade ago.
In short, ideal lapidary material for Wilson’s peculiar alchemy, and as adapted (in English, Russian, French and Spanish) with subtly sensitive craftsmanship by his frequent collaborator, Darryl Pinckney, Kharms’s highly distilled verbal spasms and stillborn comic mannerisms dovetailed gracefully with Wilson’s penchant for stuttering silences and incomplete lunges at meanings that never quite emerge.
Despite appearances to the contrary, none of this can properly be called “nonsense”. The incompleteness of expression is part of the eloquence of suggestion.
Wilson’s orchestration of the spasmodic utterances with stunning coups of primary colors in the maniacally precise deployment of lights, props and the choreography of body motion and hand position created a pure illusion of effortlessness, despite the fanatically demanding physical and verbal challenge, an unfailingly graceful embodiment of unstinting jauntiness asserted against overwhelming despair.
Every element here proved indispensible, because of the endlessly allusive cohesion among them, all operating in disciplined concert. So, too, the rigors visited upon the actors were Promethean, and thankfully these celebrity talents were beyond protean to their task. Neither was intended to be a character in any accepted notion of psychological specificity; indeed, they were meant simultaneously to contrast in bulk, inflection and manner, yet to remain in some sense integral to one another, distinctive personalities yet not separate beings, dance partners in a synchronous music hall act.
Baryshnnikov eschewed any bravura to concentrate on the inherent fluency of beauty in the very simplest of gestures: The less he does, the more potent its impact. His speech harmonized with and amplified his physical skills. And rather surprisingly, he revealed a pleasant, if thin, baritone singing voice that all but dared creative people everywhere to fashion a classically-styled man-about-town musical comedy around him. He managed to be brilliant while utterly self-effacing, and never in theater, movies or television has he acted to such astoundingly multi-faceted effect. This performance vehicle was light years beyond his Man with a Case at the Broad earlier this season.
Dafoe, for his part no stranger to avant-garde avoidance of limning motivations, achieved an impact altogether different. In his white-face makeup and unruly hair, sporting a variety of accents, he was only occasionally recognizable either visually or vocally. In limiting so severely Dafoe’s established pallette, Wilson conferred a liberating opportunity for the actor to extend his range with flexibility and surprise. This was work even more impressive than in the Wooster Group’s The Hairy Ape or the film Shadow of the Vampire, achievements that were probably necessary groundwork for this kind of collaboration in which he and Baryshnikov retained their novelty while sustaining an intricate complementary mechanism as flesh-and-blood cooperative machines.
Though neither Beckett nor Ionesco could have possibly have been influenced by Kharms’s work, unexposed as it was, clearly they drew from a similar vein of influences, and as inspirationally conveyed by Wilson’s interpretation, Kharms might well stand pridefully within their company, visionary innovators yet mindful heirs of Chaplin, Keaton and the Surrealists.
Unless one is inextricably wedded to the conventions of the prevailing ideologies of established dramaturgy, The Old Woman represents all that one can hope for theater to be capable of.
Royce Hall, UCLA (closed). Presented by Center for Art & Performance (CAP UCLA). Costumes: Jacques Reynaud. Light design: A.J. Weissbard. Sound design: Marco Olivieri.