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Songs and Stories from Moby Dick
oceans skin is thin as mans, says Laurie Anderson.
audiences is somewhat thicker, says DAK.
Laurie Anderson never makes it easy. Either she is a brilliant stage
designer and performer, her work transcending labels and calling forth a stunning new
hybrid form which includes dance, music, and spoken word, with each minute infused with a
rush of the most amazing sound and visual technological advances - all that, OR she is
theaters reigning emperor, goose-stepping around the stage, half-playing and
half-chanting a pretentious trashing of an American literary classic, with no one willing
to rise from the posh audience seats to inquire: Mommy? Isnt she still playing
that same minor chord she started with an hour and a half ago?
Of course her medium
is experimentation, and it is not meant to be easily categorized. There are moments in Songs
and Stories From Moby Dick, particularly in the first half hour, where there are no
doubts ringing in one's head. Captain Ahab (Tom Nelis) makes a dancing entrance that is
the pinnacle of the entire show, a two legged man using one leg, on crutches he maneuvers
until youre sure youre seeing Ahabs famous peg. Laurie Andersons
own entrance, playing a droning minor chord on her violin in front of a video screen of a
crashing ocean, as we see Melvilles words flashing across the water, is also
brilliant. Andersons talking stick is impressive when you first see it - its a
kind of digiridoo-shaped synthesizer, pre-programmed so it could probably do your laundry
as well as sound like thunderbolts. The opening half hour is strong because it appears to
be the beginning of something innovative and involving.
But...is it? After a
while the sameness of the music and the repetitiveness of the performers' movements begin
to set off that little cynical alarm clock: is she going somewhere with this? Will any of
these tiny musical vignettes actually turn into songs? Will that drone ever stop? And will
we ever find the great white whale?
Of course Herman
Melville wrote Moby
Dick in the same manner. A bit of a story, then a lot of musings about related or
nonrelated subjects, then back to the narrative again. In this way Anderson has remained
true to the pacing of Melvilles epic novel. Whenever his words are used, their
poetry and majesty ring through the concert hall.
But didnt the
title say...SONGS and stories? In this show when a song actually appears it is a relief.
Of the 32 songs and stories listed (even the stories are accompanied by that infernal
drone), four could actually be classified as real songs, with melodies and lyrics. One was
a really good song, too: Andersons performance of Pieces and Parts,
accompanying herself on a synthetic-sounding little organ. Likewise, the ensembles
versions of Hanging Johnny, Last Man, and Bones,
as well as Andersons Pips Song, were songs of note. It was a
musically clever touch to have Pips tambourine illustrated by Andersons
strumming of a tiny guitar.
So whats the
beef? Clearly one cant approach a Laurie Anderson performance like a concert,
because it isnt. The music has no more weight than the scenery or the technology or
the movements of the dancers. It is for this reason that her work tends to enthuse
performers and bring musicians to a rolling doze. The first half of Songs and
Stories From Moby Dick is promising, but the lack of motion later on was
disappointing. Laurie Andersons white whale is theater for the head, not the feet;
an intellectual exercise, not a soulful experience. She starts off like gangbusters, but
whether the end justifies the means is a question even poor old Capn Ahab had a
tough time answering.
October 27, 1999, Berkeley, CA