Laurie Anderson has always been more concerned with raising questions than answering them. In her new show, The End of the Moon (which I saw at the Mondavi Center for the Arts in Davis, Calif.), she begins by asking: “Who taught you what beauty is?” When the answer proves elusive, she crosses the globe searching for one. The result is a stunning and intimate one-and-a-half hour performance that sees her traveling the country as NASA’s first artist-in-residence, embarking on various multi-day walks around the world, musing on the nature of time and space.
Rejecting the complicated technological staging that has characterized much of her past work, the set design for her new show has a deliberate simplicity: a reading chair, a podium and a small screen with a projected lunar landscape. Surrounding these are numerous candles that evoke campfires and stars.
Throughout the show, Anderson’s gift for clever anecdotes and discursive observations is on full display. A question about beauty leads to a photo on the front page of the New York Times, one of the most beautiful she has ever seen. The photo is of stars being born and causes her to ask scientists if the pinks and the blues in the picture are the actual the colors of space. When they tell her they are just interpretations of data she asks, “But how do you arrive at these colors?” Their answer is that they pick them based on what they think people will like. “And you call me the artist-in-residence?” she deadpans.
Later, she writes the author Thomas Pynchon, hoping to get permission to create an opera based on his novel Gravity’s Rainbow. He writes back and agrees, with one condition: The whole thing must be composed around one instrument, the banjo. “Some people have the nicest way of saying no,” she says.
Despite moments of levity, an undercurrent of melancholy and loss runs throughout the show. Using haunting violin solos to transition between pieces, she describes the loss of loved ones, the loss of time and even the loss of innocence.
Nowhere is this sense of loss more apparent than the lynchpin of the show, a story about Anderson’s dog. Trying to get away from the post-9/11 environment of New York, Anderson escapes to Northern California, bringing Lulabelle, her pet terrier. When the dog is almost attacked and killed by turkey vultures circling overhead, reality reasserts itself. The look of fear on her dog’s face unnerves her, reminding her of the faces of her neighbors in New York City after the World Trade Center attacks. The look was a realization, Anderson says, that attacks “could come from the air, and that it would be that way from now on.”
The second half of the piece continues in this direction. By the end, there is a sadness, a longing, as if the world existed in some sort of melancholy hinterland. But there is beauty too, along with cautious optimism. Though Anderson never answers the question she began with, she proffers a remarkable theatrical experience.