Off-Broadway Theater Review: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ (The Park Avenue Armory)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on December 15, 2013

in Theater-New York


The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, a biography or perhaps an imagined eulogy of performance artist Marina Abramović, the show’s still living collaborator, is fairly straightforward in its narrative, at least in the sense of being chronological. The ways in which it differs from the more conventional biographies and stage pieces in general is in director/conceiver Robert Wilson’s theatrical language and the elements of Ms. Abramović’s life story which he chooses to leave out. The result is a gorgeous, riveting spectacle; a waking dream; a poem of light and sound, voice and movement, bodies and words.

Scene from "The Life and Death of Marina Abramović"

As we take our seats inside the vast space that is the Park Avenue Armory we see three large backlit Dobermans in near silhouette running around and between three black coffins. Each coffin contains the body of Marina Abramović shrouded in black with what looks like shiny white death masks on her face. The stage is strewn with knotted pieces of red fabric suggesting funeral roses. The dogs lick and eat invisible things off the floor and after a while of watching them the animals begin to look like creatures of mythology or nightmares – demonic carnivorous deer grazing in a dark netherworld meadow.

Scene from "The Life and Death of Marina Abramović"

Then Willem Dafoe glides out sitting in a “room” full of boxes wrapped in brown paper and fastened with rope – are they going into storage or on a journey? Have they been forgotten? Discarded?  His face painted white, his red hair in a pompadour, he is dressed in a green Soviet-era-type military uniform and looks like a grotesque version of a commissar. He will be our narrator and guide through Marina’s life; he will also be a participant in it.

Scene from "The Life and Death of Marina Abramović"

In a masterful performance Dafoe changes accents and personalities, switching characters from psychotic to sarcastic, from Nazi to hillbilly to sympathetic chronicler. He tells us how Marina’s mother beat her. We learn that as a girl, desperate to have a doctor construct her a beautiful nose, Marina tries to break hers by smashing it against the metal edge of her bed. She spends a year in the hospital dying from hemophilia – the happiest year of her young life – before the doctors realize their misdiagnosis and proclaim that “She’s just sensitive.” There are many such lovely details, mostly left on their own without explanations to tie them together; they are like candles, lit then extinguished.

Scene from "The Life and Death of Marina Abramović"

But Abramović is a performance artist whose medium is the body, often her own, and for whom the creation of an artistic work is perhaps just as, if not more valuable, than the work itself; mostly the two – process and result – are inseparable. Her essence isn’t framed by facts from her life or limited to what we commonly think of as human drama. Art is where she lives and what she lives on, and this seems at the center of what Mr. Wilson and his collaborators are trying to explore on the stage.

Scene from "The Life and Death of Marina Abramović"Abramović’s world is unique and requires its own unique language. This Mr. Wilson creates with unexpected choreography, bizarre and beautiful make-up (Joey Cheng) and costumes (Jacques Reynaud), and light and color (A.J. Weissbard) that join together a dreamscape populated by mysterious creatures that resemble humans but seem to be closer to fleeting images in a fevered dream. Mr. Wilson’s collaborators in this endeavor, besides Mr. Dafoe and Ms. Abramović, who plays herself and her mother, are Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons), whose transportive voice and original music are as personal, intimate and enigmatic as they are sublime, and the great experimental composer William Basinski. The Life and Death of Marina Abramović is a significant work of art; for all who take a serious interest in the theater, this show, and every Robert Wilson show for that matter, is an event not to be missed.

Scene from "The Life and Death of Marina Abramović"

Additional performers: Amanda Coogan, Elke Luyten, Tony Rizzi, Andrew Gilchrist, Kira O’Reilly, Christopher Nell, Carlos Soto, Nico Vascellari.

photos by Lucie Jansch

The Life and Death of Marina Abramović
Wade Thompson Drill Hall
Park Avenue Armory
scheduled to end on December 21, 2013
for tickets, call (212) 933-5812 or visit


Stewart Lane December 16, 2013 at 12:05 pm

Another great review!

Dmitry Zvonkov December 16, 2013 at 4:07 pm

Thanks, that’s kind of you to say.

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