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NEW YORK – Director Robert Wilson is no stranger to hard-to-pigeonhole productions; think, for instance, of that seven-day-long play he once staged on an Iranian mountaintop. Even so, The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic is an intriguing proposition, particularly in a city that just three years ago was seduced by her marathon work The Artist Is Present. In that piece (and the 2012 HBO documentary feature of the same name), the performance artist sat in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art for two and a half months, motionless and silent for every hour the museum was open, having an unmediated interaction with any museumgoer who cared to sit across from her.
What would a collaboration between trailblazers from the theatrical and performance-art worlds yield? How would Wilson’s singular stage environments augment Abramovic’s knack for revealing herself through deceptively simple (and often unsettling) actions?
We’ll probably never know. As it turns out, Life and Death is not much of a collaboration, and not even (as with, say, the director’s Philip Glass operas) an entity in which two artists’ visions are discrete but mutually supportive. Instead, Abramovic is simply raw material for Wilson, who dramatizes biographical detail much more often than he confronts the meanings or methods of her art.
The result, which benefits greatly from contributions by Willem Dafoe (the show’s real star, whatever its makers think) and the singer Antony (of the Johnsons), is an occasionally ravishing work — less challenging than much of Wilson’s oeuvre but hardly breezy. It will play well to fans of both Wilson and Abramovic, but is more a footnote to the latter’s career than the grand summation the title implies.
As they enter, audience members receive mock-up broadsheets carrying a front-page obituary for Abramovic. Onstage, three bodies are already lying in state, each masked to look like her; live Dobermans chew at the ground around them. As the house lights dim, a platform glides out on which Dafoe sits surrounded by file boxes and stacks of paper. He serves as narrator for most of the show, his delivery evolving throughout; at first, he’s in military garb, rattling off bullet points of little Marina’s unhappy childhood in an accent that rarely stands still.
As Dafoe’s monologue expands into actual storytelling, actors come on to mime formative episodes, like one in which the attractive young girl laments her oversized nose — her “no-oh-oze,” Dafoe singsongs, drawing a Cyrano-sized schnoz in the air every time the word is said. While jumping on her parents’ bed, the child deliberately fell on one of its sharp bedposts, hoping to disfigure herself and convince surgeons to remake her as Brigitte Bardot. Not only did she fail, she earned the latest in a long series of slaps in the face from her cruel mother.
Abramovic herself plays the mother, moving wordlessly across the stage like a fairy-tale menace. (When, in a later episode, Marina is forced to spend a year in a hospital, Dafoe sardonically calls it “the happiest time of her life,” because there was nobody punishing her.) The artist later plays herself, but in both parts she is mostly silent, staring at the audience while others explain the action.
This silent gaze is never as eloquent as it is in her own performance works. It’s a brave thing for an artist whose metier is the creation of action (and inaction) to allow a director to block her movements; it’s as if Leonard Cohen let another songwriter pen his next record, committing to sing whatever words he was given. But the dare doesn’t pay off: While Wilson is rightly famous for creating distinctive tableaux, he does nothing with Abramovic here that approaches the impact of a work like her “Nude With Skeleton,” seen briefly in a film clip above the stage.
Which is not to say he doesn’t present the audience with some transfixing scenes. His compositions are beautiful if generally unsurprising, with the simplest elements sometimes proving most effective: a reclining actress is drawn slowly across the stage in a glamorous, overlong blue gown; a cloud of dry-ice smoke covers the stage, enveloping a mournful Dafoe; bright downstage lights keep our eyes from adjusting to lighting designer A.J. Weissbard‘s blackouts, making performers really seem to disappear in an instant.
The play’s music fits the action so cohesively that viewers may be surprised to see how many artists contributed. Antony is the most visible, wearing a black dress and a protective posture over Abramovic, as if he were the good mother she never had. His song “Cut the World” achingly envisions the artist, who so often suffers physically in her work, directing that violence outward. Also appearing is a group led by Serbian singer Svetlana Spajic, who in one scene leads a hypnotic call-and-response folk song that repeats so many times it begins to feel like a lost scene from Einstein on the Beach.
Along the way, contributions to the soundscape were made by composer Nico Muhly, electronica stars Matmos and experimentalist William Basinski. (Abramovic herself sings at one point, in a voice inadvertently recalling Madeline Kahn‘s Marlene Dietrich riff in Blazing Saddles.)
But nothing about the play is as engaging as Dafoe, who transforms before us: Wearing white makeup, a red pompadour and a creepy grimace, he initially looks like a Joker figure, relishing every bit of physical and emotional violence he recounts. Later, he’s more wry, puffing a cigar and sounding like George Burns as he describes a nearly fatal game of Russian Roulette. But after intermission he has changed, speaking sympathetically, in a voice we recognize, as the subject changes from maternal torture to adult love and loss.
If the production fails to make the most of Abramovic’s artistic gifts, it does offer a sense of the cost to her of nurturing them. Why she has chosen this moment to stage her death in such a public, theatrical way is a question left for the audience to ask.
Concept, director, designer: Robert Wilson
Co-creator: Marina Abramovic
Cast: Marina Abromovic, Amanda Coogan, Willem Dafoe, Andrew Gilchrist, Antony, Elke Luyten, Christopher Nell, Kira O’Reilly, Tony Rizzi, Carlos Soto, Nico Vascellari
Musical director, music and lyrics: Antony
Music: William Basinski
Music and lyrics: Svetlana Spajic
Costume designer: Jacques Reynaud
Co-director: Ann-Christin Rommen
Dramaturg: Wolfgang Wiens
Lighting designer: A.J. Weissbard
Sound designer: Nick Sagar
Video designer: Tomasz Jeziorski
Music supervisor and music mix: Dan Bora
Commissioned by Manchester International Festival and Teatro Real Madrid with Theater Basel, Art Basel, Holland Festival, Salford City Council and deSingel, Antwerp.
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