Vaudeville has long been an essential element in director Robert Wilson’s multi-layered creations, but rarely as much as in The Old Woman. In this international coproduction now at BAM, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe make a high-octane pair of razzle-dazzlers. In white pancake makeup and suits, they clown, shuffle, dance, and shriek. But the duo’s nonstop antics hinge on existential disorientation rather than light entertainment: They prance along a knife’s edge of metaphysical pain.
In this stage adaptation of Daniil Kharms’s surrealistic 1939 novella, Dafoe (yammering in English) and Baryshnikov (speaking Russian) are twin halves of a protagonist desperately coping with the inexplicable presence of a woman’s corpse in his flat. (He eventually puts it in a large suitcase and departs on a train; what happens to it after that is a mystery.) Wilson evokes his reeling mind in an astonishing array of hues and tones, shifting frames with each scene. The director’s sublime visuals — giant birds, photos of prisoners, a silhouette forest of jagged trees — form in relation to a magnificently manic soundscape by Hal Willner. Dafoe and Baryshnikov give wonderfully exacting performances; their frenzy is our sheer pleasure, even though anguish lurks underneath. Wilson offers few narrative anchors, so the 12 sequences don’t have much cumulative power. But that doesn’t necessarily matter: The Old Woman is a masterful variety act more than a drama, and it turns dark consciousness into a dreamlike diversion.