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Theater review; ‘The Old Woman’ at BAM

Dafoe and Baryshnikov are absurd at BAM

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This story repeats itself, but never gets old.

“The Old Woman” is a loose adaptation of a Soviet-era surrealist’s short story of the same name, currently playing at Brooklyn Academy of Music through June 29. The play combines the repetition and disaffected performance that are hallmarks of absurdist theater with vaudeville’s wildly comic song-and-dance routines for a bizarre romp that Beckett-bingers and more staid theatergoers can both revel in.

The lighting (A.J. Weissbard) and stage design (Robert Wilson, who also directs) are mesmerizing, and ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov and prodigious performer Willem Dafoe deliver their lines with immense charm.

The pair plays two halves of a seemingly schizophrenic writer who discovers a dead old woman in his apartment and, fearing he will be blamed, tries to conceal the corpse. They also play the dead woman, a young lady, and a friend of the writer — but with both clad in the same Kabuki-style white face paint and suit-and-tie getup throughout, the shifts between one character and another are tough to catch and often dizzying.

Indeed, the whole production can feel very disorienting, with ad nauseum repetition of several lines making up the bulk of the play’s dialogue. By the sixth time Dafoe chants, “By the time the sixth old woman fell, I had gotten tired of watching them,” you too may be tired of watching. But don’t budge — that is just Theater of the Absurd having a joke at your expense. The trick is not to go in expecting any grand narrative — just sit back and enjoy the ride.

More than a pro forma nod to the genre, the repetition gives the dialogue a musical quality that jibes with the actors’ vaudevillian pantomime-ery.

And speaking of vaudeville, these guys can move! Even at 66, Baryshnikov still cuts enough rugs to put a carpet company out of business, and seeing the ballet icon do shuffling shtick alongside Dafoe (a spry 58) really puts the play over the top in the best possible way.

The icing on the cake, however, is Dafoe’s manner for punctuating the play’s zaniest moments — it is the freakiest Tillie grin you’ll see outside of Coney Island.

“The Old Woman” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Howard Gilman Opera House [30 Lafayette Ave. near Ashland Place in Fort Greene, (718) 636–4100, www.bam.org] Through June 29. $25–$125.

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