Performance-art diva Marina AbramoviÄ? might be the first to admit that she’s overexposed at the moment. But if the art world ever seriously tires of her, she could launch a successful career as a nightclub chanteuse. That is one of the many revelations of The Life and Death of Marina AbramoviÄ?, a musical-dramedy extravaganza with a dozen dancers and performers, plus three live dogs, loosely based on the artist’s biography and directed by Robert Wilson. The show’s current limited run at New York’s Park Avenue Armory (through Dec. 21) follows its 2011 premiere at the Manchester International Festival in England, and subsequent performances in Madrid, Basel, Antwerp, Amsterdam and Toronto.
Midway through the second act, AbramoviÄ? steps to the front of the stage, spot-lit and alone, wearing Soviet-era military garb. She lets her hair down and channels Marlene Dietrich to deliver Salt in My Wounds, a torch song of sorts, half-spoken, half-sung, co-written for her by Antony—the British singer formerly of Antony and the Johnsons—and composer Nico Muhly. The number’s sultry, understated charm is one of the most riveting moments in this often convoluted, over-the-top spectacle.
The show centers mainly on the artist’s early years growing up in Communist Yugoslavia and the tortuous conflicts she had with her abusive mother. Only fleeting moments in the second act allude to her later art-world endeavors and her singular brand of endurance-based performance art. In the production, she is a supporting player in what is basically Robert Wilson’s show, featuring the distinctive stagecraft-with striking minimalist sets, edgy music, evocative lighting effects and video projections—for which he has been well known since his landmark 1976 production of Philip Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach.
Like the earlier work, this piece consists of a loosely strung-together sequence of vignettes, with scenes explicated here in voice-overs and live narration by actor Willem Dafoe. By contrast with Einstein‘s austerity, the current production has vaudevillian comic touches and a manic energy that at times recalls theater works by both Richard Foreman and Pina Bausch. In the first act, AbramoviÄ? plays the role of her aloof and disapproving mother. She doesn’t have much to do except strut back and forth across the stage, wearing a slinky black gown and Morticia Addams makeup, accompanied by the clanging sound of her high heels.
As the show’s hyper-energetic emcee and principal performer, Dafoe knocks himself out. But his character is too often shrill, and throughout the evening he rattles off a fragmented chronology of events in AbramoviÄ?’s life that becomes rather repetitive and grating. The shining star of the evening is Antony, who musically embellishes several key scenes. Ultimately, he steals the show with his haunting vocals and formidable stage presence. One of the high points is his moving performance of a mournful song called Snowy Angel, accompanying a scene about a childhood illness. Typical of Antony’s contributions to the show, the song lends a sense of universality to specific episodes in AbramoviÄ?’s tumultuous life.