‘The Old Woman’ exudes spontaneity, exhilaration

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Cal Performances/Courtesy

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Let’s not beat around the bush here — director Robert Wilson’s ”The Old Woman” is absurd — absurdly absurd.

Based on the 1939 short story by Russian absurdist Daniil Kharms and adapted for the stage by Darryl Pinckney, “The Old Woman” confounded viewers in comedic and tortuous turns at Zellerbach Hall from Nov. 21 to Nov. 23.

How to describe a play seemingly composed out of the leftover scraps of nonsense? There is no recognizable story line except for a vague concern over removing the body of a dead old woman in one character’s house.

Likewise, there are no named characters. There are hardly even characters at all, save two clown-like figures — played by the legendary ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and film actor Willem Dafoe (“Spider-Man”) — who have been yanked back from some hellacious void of chaos and planted, thanks to Cal Performances, on Zellerbach’s stage. Together, the two are a conglomeration of past dynamic duos of the stage — part vaudevillian heroes, part Vladimir and Estragon, part sadistic Tweedledee and Tweedledum — but with their spectrally white faces and corkscrew hair, they are also something entirely unrecognizable and frequently incomprehensible.

They speak only sometimes. They, sadly, dance only a little. They hoot, giggle and cackle occasionally — in tones highly reminiscent of Dafoe’s portrayal of the Green Goblin. They jabber incessantly. They repeat. They repeat. They repeat.

The combination is, in many ways, grating, like having one’s bones crushed into millions of little pieces as they are processed in a meat grinder or like the sound of nails repeatedly harassing a chalkboard. In fact, the chalkboard sound is actually included in the eerie soundtrack that chases the actors along their directionless course.

At the same time, the performance is lighter than air — so much so that the actors’ words hardly register at all. In fact, if it weren’t for the corpse, the gun or the manic personalities of Baryshnikov and Dafoe, the show could almost have been a children’s program on PBS. Where the starkness in the disfigured, geometric lines of the set appears all the sharper for their utter lack of color or personality, the hand-held props (a clock with real hands, an oversized hand windmill) are dipped in vibrant colors, offsetting the ghostly set and its nonsensical characters to create a visually whimsical scene.

It is as if each scene were meant to brush only the surface of our senses — something alarming and brutally comical, but also distant and untouchable. The play is a masterpiece of nothingness: a nothingness that could be a rumination on death or the human psyche or, perhaps, just nothing — a nothing that is art itself.

The uncertainty generated by the unidentifiable traits and themes of the show seems to purposefully force the audience to feel more than a bit uncomfortable and self-conscious in both moments of laughter and seriousness. It is hard to say if the play is ever truly funny or serious.

This is a discomfort, a tension throughout the theater, that is made all the more tangible by the utter perfection in the performance of the actors, who seem to have left their humanity somewhere backstage.

Dafoe and Baryshnikov make for an unusual pairing, to say the least, yet as their characters’ appearances mirror one another completely, they effortlessly assume both roles — actor and dancer — with equal grace and an utter abandonment of any sense of propriety. It is almost too easy, in the midst of their ludicrous antics, to forget that behind the mad speeches and white-painted faces are two of the world’s most prestigious performers. At the same time, that seems to be a point of the play — to unmake identity and expectation, revealing the character of the cavity that remains in their place.

It is difficult to say if this is a play that anyone could actually like. All the same, “The Old Woman” is truly unforgettable — an extravagant production that simultaneously amazes, bewilders, bores, shocks and terrifies. It is unpredictable, from the enormous swing on which the actors perch in the show’s beginning right down to the parrot hats that adorn their heads at the very end.

Contact Anne Ferguson at [email protected].