Cal Performances brought something truly special to Zellerbach Hall last week end : a collaboration between the great experimental director Robert Wilson and two incomparable performers: Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

© Courtesy of Cal Performances
© Courtesy of Cal Performances

The Old Woman begins with the absurdist Russian writer Daniil Kharms. Kharm’s collision of absurdity, short gestural writings and child-like imagination is the backbone of the production, which is splashed in primary colors and rendered vaudevillian by the distinguished cast.

For Wilson’s production, Kharms’ short story of the same title was adapted by novelist Darryl Pinckney into a series of episodic vignettes, and graced with additional texts also by Kharms – who made his living as a children’s book writer and died in a prison's psychiatric ward during the German siège of Leningrad in 1942. Kharms is said to have despised children.

Before the performance begins, the audience faces a scrim painted with an antique pastoral engraving. Someone has doodled all over the proscenium-sized image and hanging before the black-and-white scene is a sparkly red dog (or is it the cow that jumped over the moon?) and a brightly colored stick-figure man in hat and bearing a staff. Dog chases man and both disappear into the wings.

Dafoe and Baryshnikov appear, suited up in black, clown white face sans bulbous red nose, and sporting wigs with a zippy wave in front. Dancing across the front of the stage, they show us objects crucial to the story we are about to see: pinwheels, clocks, a suitcase, a set of false teeth. Their dancing separates them into individual characters. Baryshnikov is always balletic – precise and graceful, with exquisite economy of movement – and Dafoe is all-guy with large movements, emphatic motion and a bit of a bounce. They balance each other beautifully.

© Courtesy of Cal Performances
© Courtesy of Cal Performances
What they add immediately to the scene is sound in the form of squeaks, hums and small phrases, bordering on – but not quite – language. Their antics dissolve the world into the preposterous and the innocent. It’s a never-never-land that we all long for. And which, as adults, we find and accept most readily through the sorcery of the theater.

The stage darkens and when it lights up again, the two characters are seated on a huge swing. A tiny plane hovers nearby: it turns bright blue, then bright red. And all the while the two characters – let’s call them A and B – describe waking up hungry: “This is how hunger begins:/ 
The morning you wake, feeling lively.
/ Then begins the weakness.
/ Then begins the boredom.
/ Then comes the loss
/ Of the power of quick reason.
/ Then comes the calmness.
/ And then begins the horror.”

Into our Garden of Primary Colored Eden has come the snake.

The devilish only grows stronger. In the course of the production it appears as a string of old women, falling out of a window, over and over. Or as an old woman entering the writer’s home only to die, leaving behind an inconvenient corpse and a set of rogue false teeth. Or as an intractable loss of memory, undecisive as to whether the number seven comes before the number eight, or if eight comes before seven. And then there is the redheaded man without eyes, ears, or hair (how can that be?) who appears an object of interest only to be abandoned by the storyteller because he lacks, of all things, an identity.

The stories or poems are repeated over and over in most scenes, with Dafoe and Baryshnikov both brilliantly rewiring each reiteration into something slightly different, and slightly more meaningful in the midst of questionable meaning.

© Courtesy of Cal Performances
© Courtesy of Cal Performances

And for each of these small stories, Wilson provides us with a new set. The background remains a plain white scrim (lit by A.J. Weissbard to Wilson’s concept in pure colors, occasionally gradated to white at top or bottom). And the on-stage props are schematic constructions with skewed angles, all painted white: wall, doorways, chairs, windowsills, a broken bed. Suspended in the air or resting on stage, these scanty whimsies are easily lit from top and side, repeating the theme of pure color. It’s all perfectly picturesque – gorgeous in its stark and intensely highlighted patterns.

The visual abstractness falls in line with the actors’ vocal decorations, which include Baryshnikov’s repetitions of the stories’ in – original – Russian. The physical movement is flawlessly matched. It’s a wonder of fastidious timing and conceptual integrity. A treat on all levels. And a collaboration beyond compare.