Ms. Heartbreak



Show #52: Delusion, Cal Performances, May 7.

Laurie Anderson in Delusion. Photo by Leland Brewster

By Sam Hurwitt

Avant-garde multimedia musician, storyteller and performance artist Laurie Anderson came through Berkeley last weekend (and Stanford a few days before) with her new piece, Delusion, commissioned by the Cultural Olympiad for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, where it debuted this February. More compelling than her last visit to the Cal Performances series at Zellerbach Hall with Homeland in 2008, Anderson’s spoken-word musings in Delusion draw you in with clever insights and images and then sucker-punch you with emotional impact.

The stage setup is simple, with small white screens on either side of the stage and what looks like a sheet-draped couch in the center of the stage. The silhouettes of sex players Colin Stetson and Doug Wieselman appear through the small screens pretty much every time their accompaniment is prominently featured, and videos are projected onto the side screens as well as onto the full-stage rear backdrop throughout the show, whether they’re blackboard doodles animated by fading into each other, swirling red leaves that look like fire, Anderson’s head projected over her silhouette, or a camera moving low through grass and dandelions that look like a tall forest.

There’s a comforting familiarity to Anderson’s presence and performance. Though her music and rhetorical style has changed subtly since the early 1980s, there she is at 62 with pretty much the same choppy short hairstyle and slow, deliberate oratorical style, full of dramatic pauses, that she’s used throughout her performing career. Also familiar is the electronically distorted, very low, urbane male “voice of authority” that she uses for some of her storytelling, going back and forth between that and her normal voice throughout the piece. Although she plays violin throughout the piece—forcefully, hauntingly, both with and without special effects—she hardly sings at all until close to the end.

Leading you Pied Piper-like along her stream of consciousness, Anderson touches on such seemingly near-random topics as the Large Hadron Collider (leading to a priceless tangent about gratuitous descriptors—if we have Great Britain, why not Maximum France?) or a suggestion to replace the period at the end of a sentence with a little clock that shows exactly how long it took you to write that sentence (which would be a particularly embarrassing prospect in my case, as I’ll often start a sentence and then surf the web a while, as in fact I did during this parenthetical aside).

She flips through an enthrallingly amusing sort of dream diary of imagistic vignettes, such as giving birth to her own dog after having it sewn inside her belly for that purpose. She tosses off countless impish aphorisms and clever brainteasers, as when she says a teacher told her, “I’m going to make a sound and I want you to follow the sound with your mind.” After a reverberating chime slowly fades, she says, “Now I’m going to do this one more time, and this time don’t follow the sound with your mind.” As the sound repeats, she lets the impossibility of the challenge speak for itself.

Some of the threads seem unfinished, such as alluding to China’s alleged claim to own the moon without elaborating on the nature of the claim. Others are amusing but fairly familiar, particularly in Berkeley, such as talking about the Supreme Court granting corporations the rights of individuals, and how if corporations were people they’d be psychopaths. Parts of it didn’t do much for me, like the portentous repetition of “another day, another day, another day in America.” But other bits land with marvelous resonance, such as, “Basically you die three times. First, when your heart stops. Second, when you’re buried or cremated.  And third, the last time somebody says your name.”

What’s particularly affecting is how personal the piece becomes toward the end, dealing with the recent death of Anderson’s mother in unexpectedly stark terms.

When she first tells the story it sound generalized, almost abstract, with a projection of the back of Anderson’s head on the big screen opposite a white-haired man in white shirt and tie standing across a room with windblown curtains. A woman’s body looks superimposed on the floor, as a dog noses around it. “She was talking in a high, new voice I’d never heard before. ‘Why are there so many animals on the ceiling?’ she said,” Anderson relates, before musing, “What are the very last things you say in your life?”

When she revisits her mother’s death at the end, it’s in a much more direct way, with a heartrending ending that hits very hard and very deep. She talks about a Buddhist exercise in which you focus on remembering a moment when you felt your mother really loved you, and then you extend that feeling as if you’re everyone’s mother and they’re yours. “And I looked and looked for that moment, but it kept slipping away,” she says. “Sometimes it looked like love, but mostly it didn’t.”

It’s a hell of an ending—not with that line, but with something simpler and more devastating soon afterward. Coming after all from a musical background, Anderson follows it up with an encore that starts hauntingly with mournful solo violin, then is joined by blurting saxes and eventually a canned beat that clashes discordantly with what the live performers are playing. It’s not nearly as strong as what came before, but by that point you can’t help but feel grateful for everything Anderson’s chosen to share.

Delusion played May 7-8 at Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley.

Bonus link: My 2004 San Francisco Chronicle interview with Laurie Anderson.

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