Philippa Wehle

"Delusion" by Laurie Anderson,
BAM next Wave Festival
September 23, 2010
Reviewed by Philippa Wehle

Laurie Anderson is a consummate teller of fascinating fables, a modern day La Fontaine, without the rigorous moralizing. Like La Fontaine, whose fables were told about and by animals (crows, grasshoppers, foxes and many others), Anderson also turns to animals in her riveting new piece, "Delusion," which opened on Sept 21st, as part of BAM's Next Wave Festival, to tell her tales. Hers are not so much to illustrate how one should behave in society, however, but more to question the possibility of truly loving another person. Anderson's animals, dogs especially but also donkeys, bears and owls, "the hairy ones," are evoked with great tenderness, love, and affection, whereas human relationships are clearly complicated, risky, and conflicted. "Tears fall from my right eye because I love you. Tears fall from my left eye because I cannot bare you," as she puts it.

Early on, while commenting on the carrot and donkey system and musing on how donkeys just keep following the carrot, "from one project to another," Anderson pauses to give us the sad news that when her donkey died, the whole system stopped working, and nothing was left of him but dust on the road. Sad indeed, but true. This back and forth between objective observations, personal revelations, and concerns that we all share, make for a wonderful evening of stimulating conversation with one of America's most important performance artists, about love, death, the current state of the empire, another day in America, who owns the moon, the sins of the modern corporate world, and so much more.

"Delusion" came out of Anderson's desire to write short plays. When this was not working out, she decided to design a piece around 20 short stories, told by her and her male alter-ego, Fenwick Bergamot (performed by Anderson using her now familiar filtered masculine voice), and enriched by the electronically enhanced music by Anderson, horn player Colin Stetson and violinist Eywind Kang and the stunning images and film sequences created by Amy Khoshbin, Maryse Alberti and Toshiaki Ozawa.

"Delusion"'s set is spare. What looks like a large, comfortable arm chair covered in black and white material with lights exploding out of it in psychedelic patterns sits in the middle of the stage. Anderson's keyboard, a microphone, two screens on either side of the stage and a large screen in the rear complete the scene. As images of colorful autumn leaves swirl frantically in a framed square on the back screen and electronic music swells to a crescendo, Anderson, wearing her trademark white shirt, dark tie and black pants, walks onto the stage and begins to spin her tales. Some are gloomy, others are funny. Many are dreamscapes; others are closer to reality.

Throughout the 90 minute piece, Anderson weaves her spell against an ever-changing backdrop of striking video projections: breathtaking close-ups of the branches of a fir tree in the snow, desolate lunar landscapes, child-like chalk figures and phrases on a slate board, rain teeming down a window, a field filled with the parachute-like seed heads of dandelions swaying in the breeze.

As colors shift from luscious oranges to vivid reds, we hear about a talk show where Anderson was invited to talk about her new book even though she knows that she hasn't written a book. We learn of the huge cheese sculpture in her room that's been there for 20 years and remains unfinished, and the married couple who hated each other but couldn't divorce until their children died. Especially fascinating is the tale of Anderson's giving birth to her dog, Lolabelle.

We travel with her on a small boat to an island that disappears as she approaches it, an island where wild animals, bears and owls answer each other, and where, she muses, they should dance. Another trip is to Iceland, to a pony farm in the middle of nowhere, owned by a strange farmer determined to renovate his ramshackle barn to make it into a place where elves (and others) can party. As unbelievable as this tale may seem, Anderson recalls that her father had told her the same story of his turning an old barn into a dance hall and expecting people to come.

Beyond fantasy and fabrication, there is Anderson's return to her mother's death and the question of the possibility of truly loving another person. When first evoked in a haunting film, her death seems more dream than reality. Who is this dead woman lying on the floor? Whose dog is licking her body and who is the photographer taking pictures of her? In short, who is this mother who "died talking to the animals on the ceiling?" In a more straightforward memory, she recalls her trip to Chicago to be with her dying mother, wondering about what she can say to a woman she does not love. A priest suggests that she bring her flowers and tell her that she always cared but she arrives too late, leaving Anderson to ask herself if her mother ever really loved her? The question of missed opportunities hangs in the air? The 19th century Russian visionary who proposed a way to solve the problem of death by resurrecting our ancestors through some convoluted system of sending particles of their bodies into space and then retrieving them, would hardly seem a likely solution. There are no second chances.

"Delusion" explores the ways that we all see and narrate our lives and the world from our own vantage points. What is real? What is fiction? What is "Delusion"? We all distort the past and the present. Is the Icelandic farmer "Delusion"al, she asks, because he wants to build a dance hall in the middle of nowhere and expect the elves to come. Anderson seems proud to be descended from the Vikings and the Irish, "people who see things, who are fabricators, and hallucinators." In other words, great story tellers.

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