Los Angeles Theater Preview: THE OLD WOMAN (Mikhail Baryshnikov & Willem Dafoe at Royce Hall)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on October 31, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


Delightful wouldn’t be a word I’d expect to use when describing a Robert Wilson show. But The Old Woman, adapted by Darryl Pinckney from an absurdist story by Daniil Kharms, and performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe, is just that. Whimsical, darkly funny, and disquieting throughout, Wilson’s striking spectacle is more poem than play, told in his unique language of light, shape, color, and movement; watching it is like entering someone else’s dream and the experience is exhilarating.


I hesitate to assert precisely what The Old Woman is about; for one thing, the narrative is deeply hidden in Pinckney’s daring and effective dramatization, into which he incorporates excerpts from Kharms’ other writings. And thematically speaking, the entire show is open to interpretation. I can say that this wholly surreal creation has flashes of vaudeville and Soviet avant-garde, as well as folklore, both Russian and American. These are not so much solid elements but more akin to bits of images that seep through the subconscious and are only vaguely recalled upon waking.


Baryshnikov and Dafoe look like opposite twins, grotesque carnival versions of penniless, constructivist-era dandies. Both are captivating as they play what sometimes appear to be two different characters and sometimes different states of the same one. They dance, sing, drink vodka, eat sausages, and deliver monologues, which are often quite funny, usually repeating them over and over. Baryshnikov says more than half of his lines in Russian; Dafoe then says the same things in English.


Some of the more memorable monologues include one where a character tells of how he detests children and fantasizes about punishing them by giving them tetanus. Another concerns a corpse that ate a miscarried fetus, then bit a woman and gave her blood poisoning. In another a character can’t remember if it’s 7 or 8 that comes after 6, so he asks his neighbors, but they’ve also forgotten, so they go to the market to ask the cashier. There is an old woman somewhere in this show. Where she is, how she got there, and what happened to her is ambiguous. But whatever happened, the play for me has a thread of Kafkaesque guilt running through it.


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Prior to the performances both evenings, in the Royce Hall pop-up library, UCLA Special Collections librarian and Daniil Kharms expert Margarita Nafpaktitis will share insight into the author and this relatively unknown period in Russian literary history. Also on display will be some of Kharms’s books for children, written in his unique, absurdist style.


photos by Lucie Jansch

The Old Woman
Baryshnikov Productions
presented by CAP UCLA
Royce Hall
Friday November 14, 2014 at 8pm
(opening night after-party at 10pm, separate admission)
Saturday, November 15, 2014 at 8pm
for tickets, call 310.825.2101 or visit www.cap.ucla.edu

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