Saturday, June 15, 2013

Review: (Toronto) The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic (Luminato)

Willem Dafoe (photo by Lucie Jansch)

Abramovic's Belgrade
by Christian Baines
I’ll admit to approaching most ‘performance art’ pieces with caution. I find my mind quietly reciting the opening monologue from that great Canadian musical, The Drowsy Chaperone as though it were the rosary. ‘Please, don’t let it be too long, Lord’ and all that business. The presence of stars usually does little to alleviate my apprehension. At their best, they can really bring the piece to life. Or, they can be ego trips designed give a mediocre (or just plain awful) work a ‘get out of criticism free’ card.
Robert Wilson's production of The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic dispels any such fears before it even begins with an unforgettable opening image. Three figures lay sleeping, almost in death pose on stage. Around them, three large Dobermans fossick the stage for food in the dim, red light. Immediately, we are transported to a Balkan city under communist rule. Abramovic’s Belgrade. The tone is perfectly set for this telling of Abramovic’s life story, with an image that is at once both strikingly beautiful and inherently chaotic.
This is a space that can encompass anything from live animals to military choirs to BDSM and kink imagery.
The same can be said for Willem Dafoe, whose character both fills and transcends the role of a narrator to embody many of the key men in Abramovic’s life. Dafoe is obviously having a ball with material that allows him to play the extremes of humour, horror and poetry, behind the ghoulish makeup that is so representative of the production design.

Playing her mother for much of the first act, Abramovic commands the stage with a confidence so imperious, the audience comes to see the surrounding action as almost as though it were a child’s playground. Perfect for scenes of her childhood, yes. But it makes a strangely fitting set for the rest of her evolution as an artist as well. This is a space that can encompass anything from live animals to military choirs to BDSM and kink imagery. Always colourful, always provocative and endlessly changing. The pace slows a little as Abramovic matures and the emphasis shifts to the relationships she forged in her adult life, but the sense of play within this fantastical landscape remains. 

Haunting songs have been contributed by Antony of Antony and the Johnsons, whose unique voice and astonishing emotional range gives the work further definition. On a narrative level, the script is remarkably smooth and just as playful, tantalizing us with moments of confusion only to have them feed into the larger narrative before too long. To be able to trust a writer to take us through such a unique work in this way is a rare gift.
While it’s hard to recommend going into this work completely cold – if only because of its undeniable strangeness – it’s a fascinating look at Abramovic’s life, well worth the time and mental effort. Those who approach it with even the vaguest curiosity will be transported by theatre that’s as fresh as it is courageous.

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