Boston Premiere of Laurie Anderson’s “Delusion”

by John Stephen Dwyer on September 28, 2011

In its second season, ArtsEmerson has made a good thing happen with the Boston premier of Laurie Anderson’s Delusion, which runs through Sunday, October 2nd at the Paramount Center Mainstage.

While composed of newer material, Delusion is classic Anderson. Her honed performance style is so distinctive that everything she does seems to constitute a larger opus, and this is no exception. Being uniquely and recognizably Anderson, it’s simply too familiar to evoke surprise. But it does astonish. There’s a reason why Anderson–unlike countless others who have tried–has successfully built a huge career on the once avant-garde quirkiness of talking in funny voices in front of video screens. The woman’s a genius.

This show uses four screens. One is the right size and shape to serve as a bench for Anderson to later sit. The others are larger, but even the largest screen is not so big as to dwarf the artist. A few minutes into the orchestration, Anderson takes the stage. With her familiar cropped hair and mannish-clothes, she seems an instantly aged version of her impish 1980s self. At the proper moment, Anderson, electric violin in hand, opens with her trademark cadence intoning “I want to tell you a story…about…a story.”

A press release describes what follows as “a series of short mystery plays” although the division between individual vignettes isn’t always obvious. As telegraphed by the opening line about stories, Delusion goes on to explore the relationship between reality, representation and perception. This is nothing new for Anderson. Many of her works–such as last year’s Homeland–explore the social construction of reality on a national or global scale. But Delusion is more concerned with individual identity, memory, and emotion.

Laurie Anderson performing Delusion

Laurie Anderson performing "Delusion" at Campbell Hall, UCSB (Lawrence K. Ho, LA Times)

Contrasted to Homeland, this new piece is also more melancholy. It’s awash in deep, interesting, Halloweeny sounds but anemic when it comes to hook-laden melodies. Here, Anderson dons no Great Dictator-esque mustache and eyebrows like she did in Homeland. But her vocal alter ego, long referred to as “the voice of authority,” is still prominently featured. This male voice seems to have mellowed into a kinder entity over the decades, and it finally has a name, Fenway Bergemot (Boston connection unconfirmed), given to it by Anderson’s spouse Lou Reed.

For a “story about a story” there’s actually not a ton of narrative offered. Themes arch, but an arching narrative is absent, and the individual “plays” tend to to be cryptic and dreamlike. Anderson talks about the Russian space program, her dead mother, her supposed Hiberno-Scandinavian ancestry, and the belief in fey–but these wandering ruminations often trail off or blend into music. In exploring this work’s themes such as loss and existential angst, Anderson remains one more concerned with raising topics and posing questions than dully suggesting answers.

As a result, Delusion is largely characterized by sounds, images and ideas divorced from context and necessitating audience members engaged enough to bring it all together (or not) in unique ways tailored for each individual in the moment. Anderson has indicated that Delusion is a work in process, and that narrative elements are becoming more explicit via these ongoing revisions. But the aforementioned impressionistic interplay between artist and observer is the essential magic of artists like Anderson. Delusion, in its current form, probably has just the right measure of ambiguity for this process.

Delusion is an amazing and moving performance piece by an artistic legend, so be careful not to waste a ticket on someone who can’t handle its unconventional structure, 90-minute length, or lack of an intermission. For those who can, Delusion is a heady and satisfying experience.

Laurie Anderson’s Delusion runs through October 2nd at the Paramount. Tickets run $25-$89 at artsemerson.org

Laurie Anderson performing Delusion

Laurie Anderson performing "Delusion" (Leland Brewster)

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