Performance review: Laurie Anderson’s ‘Delusion’
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Two years ago in Campbell Hall at UCSB, Laurie Anderson, distressed over an America at war in Iraq, wondered whether we might just start over. But “oh, my brothers,” she intoned in “Homeland,” “oh, my sisters. How do we begin again?”
Back in Santa Barbara on Tuesday night, she repeated those lines in her latest work, “Delusion,” which Anderson will present again Thursday in Royce Hall at UCLA. “Homeland” (recently released on a Nonesuch CD) was Anderson unplugged, at least as far as multimedia was concerned. Puzzling over our state of affairs, she had come to see images, and our dependence on screens, as a distraction. She turned to narrative and music alone, sharing the stage with three backup musicians.
In “Delusion,” the screens were back. But as Anderson’s mood has turned darker and she has gone deeper and more inward, the beautiful, enveloping video helped keep us in touch with the outside world. Behind her was a cinema-sized backdrop, and three other surfaces of different shapes and materials –- including a sheet-draped settee -– were also used as screens. Anderson appeared alone, dressed in tight white shirt and loose skinny tie, looking both hip and vulnerable. She too, when she covered herself with a sheet, could become a video screen.
Over the years, Anderson has looked in corners, under the sofa so to speak, and at the broad countryside to reveal how we often fool ourselves. She has relied on razzle-dazzle media, Buddhist detachment, lush chordal music, polished stories and precisely modulated narration to remain an extraordinary outsider. Had she been a 19th century novelist in Russia or China, we’d be reading her offbeat tales to know how life then and there was lived.
But in Delusion,” Anderson turns inward. She can’t begin again without confronting endings. The delusions are the ones about dying and she poses questions. How are we to face up to the fact that we all fight a losing battle? Or, as Anderson asks about last words, “What are the things you say before you turn into dirt?”
Her mother’s last days, and her complex reaction to them in her dreams, are one theme. A tear, she says, “runs from my right eye because I love you. A tear runs from my left eye because I cannot bear you.” You don’t lie to someone who is dying, but what do you say? And, by the way, who owns the moon?
As always Anderson plays her electric violin and operates a synthesizer. Besides creating a cushion for narration, music here just as often takes over from talk. There are moments when Anderson hardly seems able to continue speaking and only the violin can continue the thread. The video, such as a stage encased in rain, provides visual mood music.
Anderson can, of course, still be wry and entertaining. Fenway Bergamot, her smarmy male alter ego created by lowering her voice through electronics, turns up. But even old Fenway appears to have developed a bit of an inner life.
To reveal too much would be to spoil amazement. A supreme dramatist, Anderson makes nearly every sentence a dramatic surprise, every visual image a bolt of wonderment. So I won’t complete her cute remark about punctuation.
A dramaturg, though, might suggest Anderson cut down on her own musical exclamation points. A crescendo rather than quiet contemplation of her profoundly illuminating reflections on how we die three times is the delusion of catharsis. If she hadn’t ended her show with a climax worthy of a Romantic-period symphony, she might have saved herself the necessity of a quiet violin solo as an encore.
But in this powerful, moving, incredibly rich work, Anderson has already stripped bare her –- and our –- deepest, most troubling communal delusions. Perhaps it is simply asking too much not to let her keep the comfort of an extraneous climax here and there. -- Mark Swed
Laurie Anderson: “Delusion”; Royce Hall, 340 Royce Drive, Westwood; 8 p.m. Thursday; $33-$58; (310) 825-2101 or www.uclalive.org. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.
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