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The Old Woman Stars Dafoe and Baryshnikov

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Recognizable Guys You Might Not Recognize


The Old Woman Willem Dafoe, left, and Mikhail Baryshnikov in this Robert Wilson production at the Palace
Theater in Manchester, England.

Published: July 8, 2013

MANCHESTER, England Consider the immortal twosomes of combative, wisecracking comedy: Bob and Ray, Laurel and Hardy, Hope and Crosby. Now think about adding to that list the names Baryshnikov and Dafoe.

Doesnt quite scan does it? But Mikhail Baryshnikov, the dance star, and Willem Dafoe, the movie star, make a pretty nifty double act in The Old Woman, which was seen last weekend at the Palace Theater as part of the Manchester International Festival here. Staged with dazzling exactitude by Robert Wilson, the avant-garde sweetheart of the globe-spanning theater circuit, the show is scheduled to move on to festivals in Spoleto, Italy, and Epidaurus, Greece, this month.

Dressed in dapper black tie and diabolical Kabuki white face, Mr. Baryshnikov and Mr. Dafoe sing, step lively and tell jokes sort of while brandishing canes, clocks, valises and a loaf of bread that looks like a Gucci purse. They also break themselves up, though their laughter sounds neither musical nor spontaneous. Haaar haar, roars Mr. Dafoe, and its a nerve-shattering klaxon of a noise. By contrast, Mr. Baryshnikov squeaks, bringing to mind Mickey Mouse with his tail caught in a trap.

The Old Woman has been adapted by Darryl Pinckney from short stories by Daniil Kharms (1905-1942), a Russian writer of the absurd who is sometimes compared to Kafka but is far more fragmentary and more willfully illogical. Born Daniil Yuvachev he was, according to a program essay by Tony Wood, an Anglophile whose pen name melded the English words harm and charm. That double-edged pseudonym is appropriate to a double-edged style that combines high whimsy with higher anxiety.

Mr. Wilson has translated that sensibility into a protracted vaudeville routine that exists in a cold, picturesque limbo between Samuel Becketts Waiting for Godot and Abbott and Costellos Whos on First? As is often true of Mr. Wilsons work, The Old Woman is lovely to look at and impossible to grasp as conventional narrative. Mr. Wilson operates according to his own algebraic laws, and if you dont stop thinking and just give yourself over to them, youre sunk.

Mr. Baryshnikov and Mr. Dafoe have accepted the Wilson mathematics and stay afloat. Im not sure you would recognize either of them if you hadnt been told in advance who they were. They are eerily robotic and satanic, and at times interchangeable windup imps set at varying speeds. Moving within a geometric landscape that keeps changing color and shape making two dimensions feel like three, and vice versa they take turns telling the same stories, or shards of stories, with Mr. Baryshnikov sometimes speaking in Russian.

These tales include accounts of old women falling from windows, displaying clocks with no hands and lying dead in the narrators room. One particularly haunting soliloquy chronicles the progressive effects of hunger on the speaker from the moment he wakes in the morning. Nearly everything is stated again and again, until it is either divested of meaning or starts to seem hilarious.

Which, when you think about it, is what happens in the comedy we call absurd: jokes become funniest when theyre repeated so often that they stop making sense. The Old Woman has the feeling of an eternal fugue, in which variations on a theme are circular and endless.

Even the stars curtain calls, as orchestrated by Mr. Wilson, belong to this pattern. Mr. Baryshnikov and Mr. Dafoe keep returning to the stage until you start to wonder if you are stuck in some purgatory of a music hall, where the show never ends, and the punch line never arrives.



Pioneering theatre director Robert Wilson (The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, MIF11) returns to Manchester with his brand new theatrical production, The Old Woman. Developed with and starring legendary dancer and actor Mikhail Baryshnikov, and co-starring world-renowned actor Willem Dafoe, The Old Woman is an adaptation of the work of the same name by Russian author Daniil Kharms.

Born in St Petersburg in 1905, Kharms suffered through Stalinist rule for much of his life. Eventually he was arrested, imprisoned and killed by Soviet soldiers in the Gulags aged just 36. The shortness of Kharms life parallels the brevity of his absurdist writings, some of which stretch to little more than a paragraph. One exception is The Old Woman, an obscure, brilliant and slyly political novella written in the 1930s.

Carrying echoes of Beckett and Ionesco in its deadpan narrative, which follows the story of a struggling writer who cannot find peace with himself, The Old Woman is perhaps the finest work by one of the great avant-garde Russian authors.

An old lady is standing in the courtyard and holding a wall clock in her hands. I walk past the old woman, stop and ask her, What time is it?

You look, the old woman says to me. I look and see that the clock has no hands.

There are no hands, I say.

The old woman looks at the face of the clock and says to me, Its a quarter to three.


Robert Wilson with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe

Daniil Kharms ADAPTED BY Darryl Pinckney

Jacques Reynaud

Annick Lavalle-Benny

A.J. Weissbard

Hal Willner

Lynsey Peisinger / Tilman Hecker

Marco Olivieri

Jane Rosenbaum

Reinhard Bichsel

Marcello Lumaca

Micol Notarianni

Simona Fremde


A Baryshnikov Productions, Change Performing Arts and The Watermill Center project.

Commissioned and produced by Manchester International Festival, Spoleto Festival dei 2Mondi, Théâtre de la Ville-Paris/Festival dAutomne à Paris and deSingel, Antwerp.


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