Marina Abramović, as you may have heard, is dead. She has died at the age of 67 and is being celebrated at the Park Avenue Armory with a production by pioneering theater director Robert Wilson, called The Life and Death of Marina Abramović. She is also starring in the show, quite alive, alongside Willem Dafoe, Antony (of the music group Antony and the Johnsons), and a cast of roughly a dozen other performers.
Now, the problem is, if you were to go see this show, and you didn’t know much about Abramović, you would walk away without the least idea of why her death matters. Unless you were to read the program, which takes the form of a newspaper, whose front page offers a fictional obituary. That article offers more insight into Abramović and her importance in art than Wilson’s entire two and a half hours.
If that sounds harsh — well, I’m sorry, but it’s true. And I am truly sorry, because I went into The Life and Death of Marina Abramović with a clear mind and an open heart. Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach, a five-hour opera he created with composer Philip Glass, and the version of The Threepenny Opera he did with the Berliner Ensemble, both at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, are two of the most incredible pieces of theater I’ve ever seen.
Life and Death is another, sadder story. Simply put: its performers are excellent, the production is stunning, and the play itself is awful.
But let’s start at the beginning. When audience members enter the Armory’s Drill Hall, which has been transformed from a cavernous open space to a stadium-seated theater, the stage is already set with three coffins, on top of which lie three dead Abramovićs, their bodies set out as if at a wake. This adheres to Abramović’s stated envisioning of her death rites: three funerals, three coffins, only one of them containing the real her. The color palette here is stark and effective — Wilson at his best — with the background a blueish-greenish-gray hue and everything else black or white. A short while before the play begins, dogs start roaming the stage like phantoms, their short black fur shining under the lights. Then, female voices offstage begin a mournful song: “Pozdrav Marina Abramović” (Welcome Marina Abramović), written by Balkan folk singer Svetlana Spajić and sung by her and the three other members of her group. The sounds are achingly beautiful.
After this prologue, we jump right into the action: the narrator, played by Willem Dafoe, appears downstage left amid a small set of piled newspapers, boxes, and relics. Dafoe is powdered white, with garish makeup — both features of Wilson’s work — as well as red hair styled back and up into a shorter bride-of-Frankenstein ’do. He wears an old green military uniform, and, in a Slavic-sounding accent, he starts narrating the story of Abramović’s life as a timeline, including the year before each event, from her first anxiety attack to her first menstruation.
Dafoe’s character is manic — by turns deathly serious and wickedly funny — and the actor plays him with virtuosity. His persona changes throughout the show, from Serbian military officer to old-school New Yorker delivering a stand-up routine. He spits blood, takes off his clothes, runs and crawls across the stage. Dafoe’s narrator is the soul of the script, which includes, interspersed among the more straightforward narration, video clips (everything from shots of Abramović’s work to a gratuitous elephant); songs sung hauntingly by Antony and Christopher Nell, as well as the Svetlana Spajić group; and the abstract scenes that are a signature of Wilson’s work.
As is his style, these are often more like tableaux than scenes, and the pictures they create are stunning. In one, six different performers are staggered across the stage, each a different color (yellow, white, red, green, blue, purple) and performing a different random action (rolling naked down the stairs, masturbating, struggling under the weight of a wooden plank). The image is completed by Abramović, who walks among them in a long black dress. The gorgeous play of light and color is distinctly Wilson; the focus on the body, distinctly Abramović; the use of repetition, them both.
It’s one of the few moments where their artistic visions align; otherwise, Life and Death is all Wilson. Abramović says as much in her note in the program:
Every time I do a biography, I start with the same principle: to completely give up control. So by handing over the material to a director, he can make a remix of my life.
A few lines later, she also explains Wilson’s approach:
This biography is different because all of the other directors concentrated on aspects of my work, whereas Bob was keen to explore my life.
This — the entire concept for the show — is its biggest flaw.
For one thing, it’s the oldest sexist trick in the book: take a culturally important woman and reduce her to her personal life. I mean, there’s an entire scene in the second act when Dafoe returns to the timeline format and reads out lines about Abramović’s love life. “2013: A man kissed me like no one in my life ever has,” goes one, which is actually a quote from her diary. OK, sure, fine — women’s love lives are not off limits, per se, and Abramović’s relationship with Ulay has clearly been central to her life. But with nothing in the play about Abramović’s groundbreaking artistic work to counter them, Wilson’s choices feel trivial at best.
What’s more, the focus on biography reveals the larger myopia of the show: Marina Abramović is not a household name (much as those of us inside the art world might believe otherwise). She isn’t Marilyn Monroe or Madonna; she isn’t a celebrity. Why would anyone watching Life and Death care about her abusive childhood and her love life if they didn’t understand why her art is important? (As a friend of a friend said during intermission, “So her childhood was fucked up … and?”) The very premise of the show — that Abramović has died — is built on the condition of her death mattering. And Wilson fails to articulate that in any way; it’s merely taken as a given, which writes a huge number of people out of the audience.
Unfortunately, even if you are sold on Abramović’s cultural importance, as I am, the play still fails to deliver because of a bad script. The writing is often overwrought, particularly in the songs, with themes and ideas stated far too bluntly. (E.g. “I am bleeding / I am bleeding more.”) Narrative and expository passages butt up against the abstract ones, making the play feel schizophrenic, both esoteric and obvious at the same time.
Lest you think I’m exaggerating, consider this line that Dafoe sings in a scene that would be gorgeous if there were a mute button: “Why must you suffer / like Christ for his father?” Marina Abramović is not Christ. She is not even close to being like Christ (and I say that as a Jew). She had a blockbuster retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and regularly attends exclusive parties. Let’s please stop kidding ourselves. Were the circumstances of her abusive childhood spent in a Communist country tragic? Yes. But it is offensive to offer her up, at the ripe age of 67, with her career booming, as any kind of tragic figure.
The best argument against this is, of course, the fact that Abramović stars in the show. (Take a minute to think about that one.) And her performance was so stilted that I couldn’t help but wonder if she understood, at least somewhere deep down, how embarrassing the whole ordeal was. She looked uncomfortable on stage — awkward in her Wilsonian makeup and uncertain of her directions — pretty much the entire time. Wilson uses Abramović only superficially in Life and Death, to everyone’s detriment: he gives himself no substance on which to build his visions (rendering them kitschy at times), and he dolls her up and makes her stumble her way through a quasi-song. The happiest she looked was in the final scene, dressed in a simple white dress and hoisted up to the rafters like an angel. With her arms outstretched and her body focused on achieving stillness, she finally looked at peace.
The Life and Death of Marina Abramović continues at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through December 21.