Avant-garde ‘Delusion’ traces disparate path

Storyteller Laurie Anderson’s new play Delusion defies words. Alternating between poignant and outright bizarre, Anderson’s work presents a series of brief vignettes with an array of media as vast and varied as her subject matter. She performed Delusion, which was commissioned by the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad and debuted at the Winter Olympics on Feb. 17, at the ’62 Center over the weekend.

The short stories, lasting around several minutes each, jump between matters of reality and imagination, perhaps intentionally puzzling viewers along the way. This is apparent early in the performance when Anderson recalls the details of her mother’s death. Three projections show different images simultaneously. Two, shown against a large cut-out screen, are live shots of Anderson’s hands as she performs on her electric violin while speaking to her audience. The third, shown on a large movie screen behind her, is a surreal image of an unidentified dead woman lying limply on the floor. Animals lick at the woman’s lifeless body as other figures look on. The back of Anderson’s head peers onto the scene from behind a large red curtain, apparently playing the part of the audience to her own recollected memory. Anderson exposes the sentiment of her experience through both the imagery of the videos and the sound of her violin, relying on multiple forms of media where speech alone will not suffice.

Often during the play, she appears to hold speech itself suspect, inadequate and duly contested. Another vignette presents Anderson standing against the backdrop of an open field. “I am thinking of you,” she says repeatedly with tenderness. “A tear falls from my left eye because I love you. A tear falls from my right eye because I cannot be with you.” Anderson guards the privacy of this confession, never revealing for whom these words might be intended or the context in which they belong. Once again her ambiguity frustrates, though this time through words rather than images.

In several of her narratives, Anderson uses the microphone to manipulate her voice into deep, almost demonic masculine tones. This surreal change has the effect of calling into question the reliability of her language. Additionally, her alter ego draws attention to her multifaceted abilities as a performer. In sharp contrast to the delicate rawness of her personal memories, Anderson convincingly presents a vocal counterpart that is emboldened and wry. Her exploitation of the darker side of herself allows for an even greater range of scenes; a memorable one is her narration of the argument between different nations vying for possession of the moon. Yet toward the end of the performance, she reaches a resolution between these two disparate sides and sings a melody in her altered voice before complementing it sweetly with her own.

Of the many subjects Anderson tackles in her stories, the most effective are the ones that remain broad in scope. In her reflections upon time, memory and self, Anderson is infallibly captivating. Though her rapid cuts between subject matter make for an incongruous series of stories, the study and structure of stories themselves emerge as a unifying and intriguing focus. In her exploration through music, light, poetry and pictures, Anderson’s snippets morph into fully realized theatrical mosaics.
When the performance did fall short of this achievement, it was because of Anderson’s narrow focus on certain issues. Her political commentary occasionally seemed too topical, detracting from the grander, more fulfilling elements of her narratives. While she generally articulated her personal views with as much creativity and nuance as with other subjects, some intermittent political rants or quips sounded petty or pedantic.

Student reactions to Anderson’s theatrical experiment varied in their appreciation for her avant-garde performance. “On the whole I found it very moving, though I can’t really define why,” Susan Tan ’10 said. Others experienced similar difficulties in pinpointing the source of their intrigue or dissatisfaction. “She used interesting effects, but I don’t think it hung together well as a whole,” Leland Brewster ’11 said. Casey York ’10 agreed, saying that while she enjoyed the performance overall, “it felt like a meditation or rumination in a series of stories, so my mind wandered sometimes.”

Despite the challenges presented by these piecemeal narratives, Anderson’s project fulfilled its thought-provoking and ambitious aim.