Off-Broadway Theater Review: THE OLD WOMAN (starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe at BAM)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on June 23, 2014

in Theater-New York


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.

Willem Dafoe & Mikhail Baryshnikov in Robert Wilson's THE OLD WOMAN.

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.

Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov in Robert Wilson's THE OLD WOMAN.

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.

Mikhail Baryshnikov in Robert Wilson's THE OLD WOMAN.

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.

Mikhail Baryshnikov in THE OLD WOMAN.

photos by Lucie Jansch

Willem Dafoe & Mikhail Baryshnikov star  in Robert Wilson's THE OLD WOMAN.

The Old Woman
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House
Peter Jay Sharp building, 30 Lafayette Ave in Brooklyn
scheduled to end on June 29, 2014
for tickets, call (718) 636-4100 or visit

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