12/14/2013 05:55 pm ET Updated Feb 13, 2014

First Nighter: Robert Wilson's "Life and Death of Marina Abramovic," Martha Clarke's "Cheri"

The one thing you can safely say about The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic at the Park Avenue Armory is that it is what it is.

What it is is Robert Wilson's two-hour-forty-minute take on the eponymous performance artist's life and work. Abramovic, you see, uses her body, herself as the focus of her work. Since 1989 and as one form of this sort of self-expression, she's asked several fellow artists to present her biography and is happy to immerse herself in whatever they conceive.

There are two ways to look at this penchant. To some extent all art is autobiographical--or at least many artists believe it is--and Abramovic is merely admitting as much by openly putting herself smack-dab at the center of her performance pieces. On the other hand, the concentration on the self can be interpreted as an act of unmitigated conceit. In that view, Abramovic's is undertaking one blatant vanity production after another.

From moment to moment, as Wilson designs it, The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic evokes both responses in a spectator. Now it's autobiography with its particularities standing for the universal. Now it's Abramovic as solely occupying the center ring in a circus glamorizing and glorifying her to a point just this side of cloying.

Since Wilson is the one chosen here to illustrate the origins and, this opus, the imagined end of the artist's life, he does it in the manner to which his advocates--and (fewer) detractors--have become accustomed. The work is a series of tableaux vivantes--narrated with great fun by Willem Dafoe in white face and carrot-top wig, speaking rapidly and sometimes shaking his booty.

Whereas many tableaux vivantes preclude movement, Wilson's don't always. On the other hand, the movement Wilson usually prefers is painstakingly slow. (Were he to speed things up, this one would likely last less than an hour.) Just to prove he isn't forever wedded to near stasis, though, every once in a while he has a troupe member race into the stage-right wing.

But never Abramovic. For many of her appearances--often in costume designer Jacques Reynaud's form-fitting black gown--she advances at a snail's pace, while soundman Nick Sagar enhances her footfalls with echoing clip-clops. Wilson's notion seems to be that Abramovic walks with significantly heavy tread.

As Dafoe ticks off the years since Abramovic's birth in 1946, her story unfolds piecemeal and, for the most part, chronologically. During the early years, Wilson shows stylized versions of the abusive treatment she received at the hands of her dreadful mother--with Abramovic in that role and supporting players as identical versions of her girlhood self. Later, the young Abramovic talks about her and a school pal playing a game of Russian roulette that ends with her recounting how, after two lucky clicks, she pointed the pistol at a bookshelf and wounded a copy of Dostoyevsky's Idiot.

Born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia but eventually caught up in the history-making Serbian war--Abramovic figures in a sequence where the fifteen cast members are gotten up as soldiers, some of them denouncing artists through bullhorns. At other times, she relives her artistic and romantic crises. Throughout, Wilson has designer Tomasz Jeziorski supplement segments with videos that may or may not pertain to Abramovic. What, for instance, is the significance of a middle-aged man shaving on a split screen?

The segment apparently depicting the death promised in Abramovic's title finds her stoically reclining above a small house while surrounded by three black-winged angels atop poles that suggest crosses. In other words, Wilson has placed her on Calvary, where--can this really be the intention?--Abramovic's situation is being compared to Jesus's final suffering?
Though Abramovic repeatedly does her snail walk or perches on something or other (once in military uniform astride a spindly wooden horse and holding a white banner), she only speaks on two occasions. On the first, she recites harsh recipes, one of which goes, more or less, "Take a sharp knife, cut deeply into the middle finger of your left hand, eat the pain." On the second, she delivers a poem about having salt rubbed in her wounds.

Typical of Wilson and his creative team, whatever occurs is gorgeous to behold and, when music plays, mesmerizing to hear. The single-named Antony, garbed in something burka-like, intones songs he wrote with William Basinski and Svetlana Spajic, one about creativity. (Antony arrives towards the first-act finish looking like Ingmar Bergman's Death and leading on a leash what resembles a lobster.) At other times, cast members chant like muezzins.

Even before the piece proper begins, Wilson sends out three sleek Dobermans to gallivant among fake cardinals scattered on the stage or to nose around three coffins on which figures wearing Marina Abramovic masks lie.

The shifting image is undeniably beautiful, unusual, arresting. It suggests that something--but what?--out of the ordinary is coming, something out of Wilson's ordinarily extraordinary stray from the beaten path. By the time he and his muse Abramovic (she's also her own muse) have finished, they've scrupulously unfolded a work that's all but impossible to ignore from an esthetic standpoint.

At the same time, it's also difficult to say that what's transpired has been at all emotionally involving--despite the emotions surging in Abramovic's past. Neither is it easy to maintain that anything especially edifying has taken place. To the contrary and as with many Wilson enterprises, it appears to be deliberately distancing.

Maybe it all comes down to a question of whether art must be either emotionally provocative or edifying to be transcendent. It may be that The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic rests on the individual's attitude towards those criteria.
Martha Clarke's new piece, Cheri, is her adaptation of the Colette novel of the same name and of The Last of Cheri. Whereas Clarke is the maker of several superb performance events that can't be pinned down as one thing or another, this one is easily categorized.

It's a dance for the marvelous Alessandra Ferri and the equally engaging Herman Cornejo. It's a dance, despite the presence every now and then of Amy Irving--in a striking frock that set designer-costumer David Zinn chose--speaking excerpts that Tina Howe has lifted and perhaps tweaked from Collette's works.

It could be said, given contemporary vernacular, that this is the ultimate cougar ballet. Often leaping from a rumpled upstage bed and just as often tumbling back into it, Ferri as the older Charlotte and Cornejo as the title character grapple with each other to some sexually provocative avail--as Sarah Rothenberg plays Debussy, Poulenc, Ravel and others at a stage-right piano.

Ferri, virtually retired from her brilliant career, is at no point en pointe, and when Cornejo is lifting and swinging her about, it looks as if Clarke has chosen to refrain from any excessively demanding activity. As the piece reaches its conclusion with Cheri having returned from World War I, the now Charlotte-bereft young lover goes into a sequence that reveals the extent of his shell shock--and simultaneously showcases Cornejo's impressive virtuosity.

Nonetheless, the result is a minor Clarke creation. Some longtime fans might even consider it a disappointment.