Robert Wilson's grand and mesmerizing theater piece The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, which debuted at the 2011 Manchester International Festival and has since traveled to a half dozen international venues, makes a homecoming of sorts this month with its United States premier at the Park Avenue Armory. I say homecoming because New York is base for many of the principals, including Willem Dafoe (who anchors the play as narrator) and Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons, a band unduly relegated to cult status), as well as Abramovic and Wilson. The operatic play itself is set mostly in the Yugoslavia of the titular performance artist's youth, with frequent side trips into the recesses of her memory and imagination.
Stated in the simplest of terms, visitors to this place witnesses tales from Abramovic's life—presented by various means and from various points of view—with her death opening and closing the two-and-a-half-hour performance. As the audience take their seats, three nearly identical figures in black robes (all versions of Abramovic) lay in repose on raked coffin-like plinths as two doberman pinschers scurry about the stage, which is strewn with glittering red bones. At the end, the same figures—now in white robes—ascend toward heaven, though people who know the artist's preoccupations may suspect she is headed to a more vaguely spiritual place.
In between, relationships are acted out, songs are sung, significant events are read off as dry facts ("Refused to walk at three," "Her father gave her a pistol at 16," "2006: Death of mother, finally!"), and the central character's abstract anxieties are given concrete expression in filmic interludes (of a man frantically shaving and, later, a drum running down a hill). Which is all to say that Abramovic's life, and death, are enacted with Wilson's signature flair.
Indeed, aficionados of Wilson's work will find plenty of his tropes used to excellent effect here, from the precise and constantly shifting lighting that includes a row of fluorescent tubes at the edge of the stage to the heavy makeup reminiscent of that from kabuki theater to the miniature secondary stage, set in front of the proscenium, from which Dafoe does much of his work of moving the story along. The surprise is that there is more of a story than one might expect from a Wilson creation, albeit told in his typically episodic and repetitive fashion.
Another surprise is that Wilson and Abramovic have not worked together before, given the affinities in their works. Both have used duration to upend spectators' expectations and perception of time. Both know how to create a perfect tableau within the shifting fabric of performance. And both have struggled to reduce emotion to its essence, then perform it through abstraction and metaphor. Ultimately, each in their own way has achieved an improbable mashup of the minimal and the melodramatic. Of course, in pushing such limits, both have failed at times in their efforts to achieve the uncanny. Upon first hearing this piece was in the planning, I worried the particular pairing of subject matter and interpreter might run the risk of being self-serious, sentimental, and overwrought. Happily those dangerous shoals have been skirted.
The two have known of each others works for decades and have been friends for many years. The project was initiated when Abramovic—who was also the subject of a similarly elegiacally framed 2010 book When Marina Abramovic Dies, by James Westcott—asked Wilson to direct her funeral. (In a post-performance artist talk, she insisted that a preoccupation with death is a very Balkan trait, and detailed how she wishes to have three simultaneous funerals in the three cities staged so that nobody should know where her body is actually buried.) Wilson is supposed to have replied, "Only if I can direct your life as well."
In addition to being the ostensible subject of the evening, the performance artist takes the stage herself and is a commanding presence here—particularly when bringing to life the fearsome character of her own mother. Despite her centrality in this production, however, it would be wrong to call the piece a collaboration between Wilson and Abramovic. In the artist's talk, she demurred that as both subject and actor she was merely providing "material" for Wilson to use as he wished. What is more, she says she didn't ask Wilson to change anything. (It's an interesting relinquishing of control for an artist whose performances are usually so precisely planned and executed.)
With that explanation, we understand that it was Wilson's choice to largely ignore her creative struggles and output in favor of painful stories from her childhood: Her aunt who committed suicide after a life in servitude; her parent’s 25th-anniversary fight; her mother’s refusal to dole out any praise or ever kiss her; and a gruesome parable about how to create a "wolf rat" through forced cannibalism. What pass for uplifting episodes include the year she spent in the hospital after being misdiagnosed with hemophilia (“it was the happiest year of my life”) and her transcendent death.
Wilson leavens this tragic saga through the astute use of humor and song. He uses humor to deflate the most harrowing characters and scenes, as accompanying the mother’s every step with loud thud that renders her almost akin to a cartoon character. The music, including both original deeply personal and moving songs brought to life by Antony as well as traditional music from the Balkans, bring all the confusion and pain to a standstill and the life into focus.
Abaramovic is right to say this is not her story, but it is not really Wilson’s version of her story either. It is a rumination on the entire form called biography, including its possibilities and its limitations. Wilson makes use of styles ranging from the chronological compilation of facts, to the mostly interior psycho-biography, to the delineation of influence between the external and the internal, to the use of memory as a filter. There is even a printed obituary on the seats as the audience enters. In the end the production leaves us both overwhelmed and wanting more, feeling that the pieces don’t all make sense. Much like the feeling when someone we have come to know dies.