“The Old Woman”
Directed by Robert Wilson
A black and white portrait resembling a page out of a children’s picture book hangs above a dimly lit stage. Suddenly, the sharp crackle of thunder and an unnerving darkness permeates the room.
From the darkness emerges two men dressed identically: a black suit, a button-down white shirt, a tie and suspenders, with faces that are painted clown-white with harsh, black lines. The only thing that distinguishes them is the side to which their hair is parted.
Adapted by Darryl Pinckney and directed by Robert Wilson, “The Old Woman” is based on the story by Russian author Daniil Kharms – a surreal political novella written in the 1930s – and stars world-renowned dancer and actor Mikhail Baryshnikov and film star Willem Dafoe.
In telling the story of a struggling writer, “The Old Woman” has a transformative vigor that provides emotional insights into the human condition. When Baryshnikov and Dafoe stand shoulder to shoulder, the symmetry of the parts in their hair makes them seem like two halves of the same individual.
Gleefully mischievous and comical, the two operate as one identity split in half. As both Baryshnikov and Dafoe play the writer and the old woman, they repeat each other’s stories and swap characters, even within the same scene at times.
The notion of being haunted by one’s inner demons is a theme prevalent throughout the play, and the use of repetition is a substantial tool used to elevate this theme.
While the beginning of the play provides a spectacular, whimsical introduction that secures the audience’s attention, the repetition throughout alters the mood in several different ways. As Baryshnikov and Dafoe repeat their monologues for the fourth or fifth time, fatigue begins to set in – a fatigue that soon makes one wonder how much longer they will go on.
The predictability of the lines being said by Baryshnikov and Dafoe begins to take on a rather demented quality – creating a dream-like atmosphere that never quite dissipates for the remainder of the play.
In fact, for the majority of the one-hour and 40-minute play, “The Old Woman” feels like being inside of a dream due to its quirky, eccentric mood. This, combined with the extremely accelerated pace and abrupt change in scenes becomes quite exhausting to watch about midway through play.
Where there is a lack of momentum in the play is in the relationship between the old woman and the writer. Because the actors are continuously switching characters, even within the same scene at times, the storyline is often difficult to follow. Combined with the rapid and often erratic pace of the play, “The Old Woman” feels as though it is moving in and out of a story rather than building toward a climactic moment.
However, despite the chaotic pace, the set design remains visually striking. Though it maintains a rather minimalistic feel, it is complemented with fluorescent white hues contrasted against deeply saturated colored lights and quirky drawings, puppets and cutouts throughout.
While at times the characters find themselves in the writer’s apartment, at a bakery or even at a train station at one point, the most prominent visual feature always remains the manipulation of light.
At several points throughout the play, the light would shift focus from the main stage, to the actors and even to specific areas of the body on Baryshnikov and Dafoe. This truly serves to elevate that eccentric, whimsical feel that was prevalent throughout “The Old Woman.”
Another standout aspect of “The Old Woman” is the performances given by Baryshnikov and Dafoe. While the narrative of the storyline is demanding and scattered, Baryshnikov and Dafoe remain centered and in sync, not just in terms of their acting, but in their choreography as well.
Whether it was a waltz, or a tango, or even a simple pitter-pattering of the feet, the choreographed dance numbers in “The Old Woman” were meticulous and precise. In their movement, Baryshnikov and Dafoe are impeccably graceful and offer a fluidity of voice that provides a plethora of emotions: ghostly, irritating, humorous, startling and soothing.
“The Old Woman” presents a play that is aesthetically pleasing to look at on stage, but proves how easily a story can fall flat when lack of substance and momentum are present.
– Shelly Maldonado