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Sunday, June 22, 2014

In Context: The Old Woman

The Old Woman, Robert Wilson's surreal, vaudevillian adaptation of the titular short story by Russian writer Daniil Kharms, comes to BAM from June 22—29. Context is everything, so get even closer to the show with this curated selection of articles, videos, and original blog pieces related to the show. For those of you who've already seen it, help us keep the conversation going by telling us what you thought below.

On the Blog

BAM Illustrated: The Old Woman
An adaptation of Daniil Kharm's dark story by BAM's Nate Gelgud.

Don Coleman is done with Robert Wilson!
After almost two decades at BAM, Don Coleman is retiring from the production department. He reflects on working with Bob Wilson over the years.

Daniil Kharm's Shimmering World
The Old Woman author "lived as he wrote," writes Jess Goldschmidt: "to startle the audience into epiphany."

Baryshnikov and Dafoe Make It Physical
The two Old Woman actors communicate as much with their bodies as with their mouths.

On Baryshnikov & Dafoe 

“Mikhail Baryshnikov Back On Stage with Willem Dafoe” (BBC)
For The Old Woman, Baryshnikov offered to sing and choreograph—two things he’s long refused to do.

“Don’t Make This Into A Crackpot Profile, Please” (The Guardian)
“I've always been game,” says Willem Dafoe, “maybe to a fault."

Video Interview
Willem Dafoe & Mikhail Baryshnikov (YouTube)
Says Dafoe: “Singing and dancing? Yeah, I’m a showbiz baby.”

On Daniil Kharms

Lapham’s Quarterly Podcast: Daniil Kharms (
An introduction to the Russian writer, along with a discussion of his notebooks.

“So It Is In Life” (The New Yorker)
Bite-sized writings by the master absurdist.

Daniil Kharms (
Learn more about the eccentric writer behind The Old Woman. 

"Art is a Cupboard!" (
A rich account of Kharms' life and work from the London Review of Books. 

“Soviet Deadpan” (The New York Times)
Writer George Saunders opines on Kharms’ aversion to literary artifice.

Now your turn...

So? How was the Baryshnikov/Dafoe dynamic duo? How did The Old Woman compare to other Robert Wilson productions? Clamoring to read more Kharms? Tell us what's on your mind in the comments below.


  1. This was so interesting. The acting superb, the sets, lighting, all of it really fascinating. Odd, but fascinating.

    1. Review said it was absurd, and it was. Went for the two actors and they did not disappoint. Did it make sense? When is absurdity supposed to make sense!

  2. Beyond the fact of my total adoration for Baryshnikov for the last 30 years(I am also a Russian 1970's emigre) and my infatuation with Dafoe, the combination of edgy creativity of Bob Wilson, desperate humor of Daniil Kharms and overwhelming on stage chemistry of the actors created a masterpiece. We enjoyed every scene. Baryshnikov and Dafoe completely enjoyed sharing the stage, dancing, singing and playing. Loved the play. Want to see it again and again.

  3. I've decided absurdist theater just isn't my thing. Seeing Baryshnikov and Dafoe is always worthwhile, but I found myself checking my watch frequently even though it wasn't a long show.

  4. No doubt that this is an unusual and marvelous show with a combination of great artists, direction, and the great humor of Daniil Kharms. As I do very rarely I laughed up to tears because it was so enjoyable. But it was very sad to see around me many viewers, even some Russian speakers like myself, missing some brilliant jokes either because in the front row, where I was sitting, the music was too loud or because you couldn't see the translation of the text (in only one place and that was too high up). It would also be helpful if in the program there were some examples of jokes (or absurdities of Russian language), like the last phase "I'll give you a pill", which In Russian means "I'll beat you up". Maybe that would help to keep the audience's interest and stop them from checking their watches. Otherwise, thanks for a wonderful show!

  5. Worst evening of theatre my partner and I have attended in quite some time. I did not enjoy the self-congratulatory, one-dimensional nature of the director's production, nor was I that impressed by the design to be honest.

    Furthermore sitting in the balcony in row B37 I could not even put my feet on the ground as there is no room between the edge of my seat and the back of the next row. My partner, who has a hip injury, could barely stand at the end of the 100 minutes of torture.

    Furthermore, neither of the actors use their voices properly and so the inarticulate rumbling of their throaty, nonsensical warbling was even more pronounced given that the speakers were only balanced for the orchestra seats. I was mainly grateful for being reminded of the benefits of my Vipassana meditation practice as I closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and fought the impulse to scream and hurl myself from the balcony.

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  7. This was my favorite show of all shows. The music was incredible, the acting, make up, props,
    colors, sound effects, everything about this show, inspires me. I want to see it again! Thank you BAM !

  8. Saw it tonight after looking forward to it for months. I loved this show so much. We felt it was the height of art and couldn't stop talking about it afterwards. Baryshnikov and Dafoe were fantastic - the writing, music, sets and every other element was perfect. I've never seen an audience more enraptured. Thanks to all involved for a memorable night of great theater.

  9. I was amazed that such a short story could be enlarged on such a scale as this. While some may loath it with its odd vocal renderings and numerous scene changes, the production shows what is at the very heart of theater - ingenuity. Finding a way to convey a story to a live audience. The combination of Dafoe and Baryshnikov was genius. While I love BAM and find it magnificent, I do agree with one observation - the seats in the mezzanine are dangerously cramped. I am not overweight but in a long production I would worry about blood clots in the legs because once you are seated there is no room to move whatsoever without physically disturbing the person in front of you.

  10. very different, absurd and unexpected, a worthwhile 100 minutes—thank you BAM. Dafoe and Baryshnikov make it much like an (enigmatic) New Yorker cartoon come to life... if it were not for the brand name actors, would we be as amused?

  11. Absurd - without a doubt.
    Dafoe/Baryshnikov duo - brilliant.
    Robert Wilson visuals and direction - fascinating.
    Worth the visit - absolutely BUT !!!!! What was it about???????????

  12. Wonderful staging and exceptional acting, but I was kind of left with the feeling that this is what brilliant, restless minds create once they have become bored with making beautiful things.

  13. Yes the acting was expectional -- they seemed to be enjoying themselves. I stretched again in seeing this - giving Robert Wilson (with predictable color palatte) a try. I'm done -- there is so much else to see on stage - this is not a fun evening. BAM thanks for providing a place we can explore these options.

  14. One cannot be ambivalent about Robert Wilson. I happen to love his world. His Three Penny Opera from a year ago was the most captivating and mesmerizing theatre I had seen in a long time. Very nice performances, lighting, directing in The Old Woman...but the evening would not have been the same without the brilliant Willem absolutely riveting vaudeville performance.

  15. I came to see The Old Woman because it was a Robert Wilson piece. His staging, lighting, movement and sound worlds completely resonate with me, and I think both performers did a fantastic job of bringing Wilson's vision to life. I was mesmerized. I did have a very interesting experience, however, in terms of where I happened to be seated. I was in the middle of lots of Russian speakers who I believe came to the show because of its Russian roots (and because of Baryshnikov.) There was much anticipation before the show but after 5 minutes there was lots of huffing and muttering and complaining. It was clear they were suffering through it and several left early. They did not respond at all to Wilson's world and hated it as much as I loved it. And in my opinion, that is a perfect evening of theater. Some people loved it. Some people hated it. And that is as it should be. I overheard people who had never seen a Wilson production who are now fans. Well done once again, BAM, for adding to the cultural conversation. I am very excited to see Shakespeare's Sonnets this fall. I am refraining from watching old You-Tube videos of it so I can let Robert Wilson surprise and delight me yet again.

  16. Incredible absurdist production. It was one of the most visually striking and arresting pieces I have ever seen--right up there with BAM's 2012 Einstein on the Beach. Fantastic performances from both actors, definitely worth it!

  17. Jibberish. Non-sensical. Waste of time. Only went for Dafoe and Baryshnikov and they disappointed. Not sure why they would sign on.

  18. As someone with an opera and acting background, I have some sense of what it took to do something like this, and I am in awe of it. As deeply as I appreciate their efforts and talent, I but find the prospect of participating in it as anything more than an audience member positively daunting and intimidating. Watching it was an absolute joy.

    This was the first Bob Wilson production I'd ever seen, and like David Lynch, abstract expressionism is not really my favorite cup of tea, but it gets me out of my head and stimulates my imagination. My feeble brain could never manage what was technically demanded of the cast and crew, however, and ever hope to get OUT of my head, so I am grateful it was them up there and not me.

    The production as a whole was innovative, visually stunning, physically compelling, strange, wonderful, certainly "absurd" and, while appealing to my aesthetic sense of balance and form, it completely worked. Dafoe and Baryshnikov complimented each other perfectly as mirror images of the same persona - one full of nuanced grace, the other full of masculine hutzpah. I found it interesting too to compare physically these two still extremely lithe stage veterans with bodies that have some respectively different mileage on them. Dafoe was dunking enthusiastically into these 2nd position grand plies and doing side to side high kicks, while it was Baryshnikov who played with the upper registers of his voice. With the exquisite grace of a veteran dancer, it was also clear that he knew how to take very good physical care of himself.

    This was one of the most unique stage experiences I have ever been privileged to attend and witness, and I will cherish it always. It wouldn't surprise me, however, if the backstage crew didn't have an affectionate term of endearment for the production. Something like, "The Show of One Thousand Ways to F#$k Up."

  19. What a disappointment! It felt as though we were in a mental institution among deeply wounded souls, especially Dafoe. Great actor and so multifaceted, but, unfortunately, not in this play. This play was a fiasco for me! I wish I would have spent my money elsewhere! As for Baryshnikov… Well, he can speak Russian!

  20. Any chance to see Baryshnikov is worth taking, but otherwise an interminable 80 minutes (is that all it was?)

  21. Physically beautiful. The use of the lighting is spectacular. Dafoe is terrific. Baryshnikov...what can I say? He's perfect. Every move he makes is motivated by thought and intent.
    Very engaging piece of theater.

  22. Two great artists at work onstage, and one great creative artist in back of it all. I would love to see Dafoe and Baryshnikov in Waiting for Godot! I was fortunate to be sitting close, which gave me the opportunity to appreciate their work even more. And how about that marvelous front curtain? I assume Wilson designed it. Plenty to look at and study before the play began.

  23. Saw it on Saturday, June 28. Totally baffling and mesmerizing at the same time. Loved everything about it. Was attracted initially for the opportunity to see Baryshnikov but discovered a Willem Dafoe I had never seen before! He was amazing - what range. The total package! I have become his fan. The music and the production were uniformly perfect. Only disappointment (and it minor) was that the sound was inconsistent. Occasionally loud to my ears. Thank you, BAM, for great event.

  24. A truly wonderful artistic achievement! ... a stream of stunning visual and acoustic effects used in cabaret style to showcase taunting storytelling and very personal thoughts, building on and extending (!) the paradigms of Russian literature and overflowing with Russian soul. I don't see a whole lot of theater, but this was the freshest thing I've seen since first being introduced to the dances of Merce Cunningham. - Both accessible and maybe opening doors to other highly entertaining and rewarding intellectual experiments.

  25. I really enjoyed the play. I came to the same realization as I was watching that I later found Ben Brantley had written in his review: I stopped looking for deeper meaning and just gave myself over to what I was seeing. Once I did that I really enjoyed it. I was like watching a live action surrealist painting for 90 minutes.

  26. It's not Einstein on the Beach, but the performances of Dafoe & Baryshnikov were phenomenal. I do have to make note was annoyed that people were seated 20 minutes after curtain call. Was extremely distracting (especially when the patron was using their flashlight from their iPhone). What ever happened to if you miss curtain call, sorry. Even small off-broadway theaters have that policy.

    Overall, was whimsical and fun. Great job.

  27. A bite size dip into a Wilson styled production. The production was light hearted. If you came with a serious deconstructive mind it would be sure to fail, and disappoint. Personally I enjoyed the whimsical approach and logic flips. There was great wit and humor in the way it danced around our need to fit a story into a box. Entertaining and I recommend. Take it for what it is and enjoy the ride. The duality of Defoe & Baryshnikov superb.