Baryshnikov Back in Berkeley

“The Old Woman”
Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe
Directed by Robert Wilson
Nov. 23, 2014
Cal Performances, UC Berkeley

Bizarre! Absurd! Irrelevant! Nonsense! Disjointed!

These are words used by publications worldwide, including the BBC, the New York Times and our own San Francisco Chronicle. They sum up “The Old Woman” perfectly. It is all these things, and not much more.


Based on a 1939 political novella by the Russian absurdist Daniil Kharms, adapted for the stage by Darryl Pinckney and directed by Robert Wilson, this 100-minute adventure of “The Old Woman” is about something, but it’s not really about anything.

The two main characters, played by film/stage actor Willem Dafoe and dancer/film/stage actor Mikhail Baryshnikov in white faces very similar to Kabuki actors or The Joker, take us on a ride to, well, nowhere. Romping about the stage in vaudeville fashion, complete with slapstick moments and curious dialogue, each “act” is simply a tiny vignette that is seemingly independent from all others and lasts a mere five to seven minutes. The characters are completely intangible, since they constantly change roles, from Russian to English, from man to woman, from murderer to victim, and perhaps good vs. evil, but I’m stretching here. One thing is clear, though: there is an Old Woman, and she died. But that’s all I could make of this confusing confetti explosion. It’s simply just a mess. However, confetti–no matter how it’s thrown in the air–is always colorful and beautiful, and that “The Old Woman” is. Director Robert Wilson spent 90 percent of his time on set and lighting, and 10 percent with the actors. It shows, because the set is absolutely magnificent–full of mystery, intrigue, and vivid colors, all in a simplistic setting. The set constantly changes from gorgeous stark monochromes to jewel-toned lighting. This is the only saving grace, and it is a complete juxtaposition to the play itself and its Jackson Pollack dialogues and tendencies.


Robert Wilson is known for his absurdities and mastery in abstract theater. In this particular play, the strict structure and precise movements were challenging for Baryshnikov. He told the New York Times that there were moments that he was very upset. Wilson never tells his actors what to think; he leaves them to figure it all out on their own. As an actor, this gave him lots of room to develop and work with it mentally, but at the same time, there was a very small window to perform it. But Baryshnikov is enjoying the challenge immensely.

Baryshnikov and Wilson are developing another show together. If it comes to Berkeley, it will be Baryshnikov’s fourth appearance there. He has had three running performances in the last 2 1/2 years. I think Mikhail is sweet on Berkeley; he said in an interview with the Chronicle that it’s starting to feel like home. See you soon, Mikhail!