Created and performed by Laurie Anderson
Brooklyn Academy of Music Next Wave Festival
New York City
September 21 – October 3, 2010

photo by Rajav Segev

For those who know Laurie Anderson primarily as a recording artist, it’s easy to think of her as a friendly, quirky pop-art celebrity. You know, the one with the pixie face and the spiky hair who’s married to Lou Reed, the one whose most famous song, “O Superman,” is so easy and fun to imitate (“ah-ah-ah-ah-ah”). But to see one of her fully produced theatrical evenings, such as Delusion, which recently opened the 28th annual Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is to re-encounter the deep strangeness of what she does. Yes, you can call it performance art, but that overly bland term, which can also be a cynical euphemism for overindulgent multimedia histrionics, doesn’t really do her justice.

Anderson is first and foremost a storyteller – the first words she speaks in Delusion are “I want to tell you a story about a story” – but a peculiarly discursive one. Her narratives depart from traditional beginnings, middles and ends, and their content is conveyed as much in images and sounds as in words. She strings together dream tales, travelogues, political commentary, overheard remarks, and literary references with the free-associative confidence of a poet or stand-up comic. It’s a bit of a high-wire act. It can come across as an endless string of non sequiturs. Sometimes her shows can leave you feeling like you had less than a full meal. Delusion is her strongest piece since Empty Places, the 1990 compendium that followed her four-part 1983 magnum opus United States.

The visual images tend toward autumnal – the four screens onstage flash with pictures and videos of dead leaves, rain, black-and-white gardens gone to seed – and the musical motives mournful. (Horn player Colin Stetson and violist Ervind King accompany Anderson, who summons all kinds of sounds from her violin and keyboards.) Some stories touch on death and dying and the after-life. “They say you die three times,” goes one passage, “once when your heart stops, again when your body is buried or cremated, and then the last time someone says your name.” Some refer obliquely to stormy intimacies that alternate between love and hate.

photo by Leland Brewster

We make side trips to Iceland (where Anderson encounters a farmer who speaks about elves) and the moon, which look remarkably alike in pictures. Apparently, NASA is developing a long-range plan to ship used plastic and industrial waste to the moon, but a question of ownership has arisen. “China believes it owns the moon. Russia says we got there first. The US says we put the first guy up there. Italy says we saw it first.” 

Fenway Bergamot, Anderson’s male alter-ego who speaks through a low-pitched vocal filter, puts in an appearance to talk about politics (“Another Day in America,” which appears on Anderson’s latest CD, Homeland). “Maybe control is different for men and women,” Bergamot muses. “Men have to fix. Women can cry. It’s rare for men to cry. I have a small jar of men’s tears collected during the last war.”

As Anderson leads us through this dreamscape, we can’t help wondering if this is going anywhere in particular. Turns out it is. In Delusion’s final story, she consults a Catholic priest with a shocking, brutally honest confession: “I have a problem. My mother is dying but I don’t love her.” In a few deft strokes Anderson captures the wrenching chaos of an unbeautiful hospital death and the eerie psychic drift of not-mourning. Suddenly, all the pieces of the evening come together in an unexpectedly, intensely personal way.

If storyteller is Anderson’s primary identity, right behind that is the questioner. Out of the oceanic wash of sights and sounds that add up to Delusion, every few minutes a potent question emerges: What is a man if he outlives the lifetime of his god? What are days for? Why is it always raining in my dreams? Dear old God, who are these people? And finally, most poignantly, Did you ever really love me?, posted September 29, 2010