THE LIFE AND DEATH OF MARINA ABRAMOVIC written by Abramovic, Robert Wilson and Anthony, directed by Wilson (Luminato). At the Bluma Appel (27 Front East) until June 17, Saturday and Monday 7:30 pm, Sunday 2 pm. $55-$125. 416-368-4849, luminatofestival.com. Rating: NNNN
The title may be The Life And Death Of Marina Abramovic, but this show is hardly a traditional stage biography. For one thing, Abramovic is very much alive, and acts as co-writer and one of the actors. And because she's working with director/designer Robert Wilson, her "life" takes on the surreal feel of a dream or nightmare.
That feeling is certainly there in the work's pre-show tableau, where three figures - each with a mask patterned after the performance artist's visage - lie in individual coffins, while lithe Dobermans prowl the stage. Will they leap out into the audience? Upset one of the coffins? The danger, to reference the title of Abramovic's most famous show, is present.
Not that Abramovic's life doesn't have its fair share of nightmarish elements to begin with: a cruel and punishing mother (played by the artist herself, with sadistic glee), an unhappy childhood in Belgrade with two constantly fighting parents, migraines, bad relationships and artistic struggles.
In the first half of this ambitious and hypnotic show, actor Willem Dafoe - made up to look like some cackling, red-headed villain in a superhero movie - narrates the chronological events of Abramovic's life. Wilson turns these into stylized playlets, grotesque recreations of key scenes: the accidental destruction of a washing machine, a failed attempt by a young Marina to break her nose so she'll be able to get a surgically reconstructed one.
There's lots of pain here, but it's depicted it so outlandishly it becomes comic and hyper real: tragedy transformed by and into art.
The second half, chronicling Abramovic's relationships and creative struggles, is a little messier, but it's no less fascinating. Dafoe's narrator sifts through mounds of newspaper clippings, reading out years and events in Abramovic's life in unchronological order. This feels authentic. We remember vivid moments from our childhood, but adulthood is a little blurrier.
What's not blurry, however, are the design elements and the terrific work by the ensemble, who throughout the two-and-a-half-hour show become a series of fascinating Abramovic archetypes: mother, soldier, angel, Marina herself.
Music also plays a fascinating part in the show, especially when Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons) steps onto the stage. Clad in a dark dress and appearing like an alternate mother figure, he sings soulfully (music is by him, William Basinski and Svetlana Spajic) about dreams, creativity and empathy.
What Antony does with his unearthly voice is communicate emotion that's not present in Abramovic's strangely immobile, implacable poker face.
If the show lacks a satisfying ending, it's because the ageless Abramovic is still living her life and, let's hope, continuing to mine it for highly imaginative works like this.