Laurie Anderson must be seen to be believed -- literally. As with most performance artists of her generation, now in their fifties, her multimedia inventions look cramped and airless on home-entertainment formats, and their onstage survival is hard to imagine without her presence to set their fairly quirky themes into motion. Too much depends on the live effect of the high-tech mix, the uses of real space to create audio as well as visual drama, the narrative spontaneity of the material, and the offbeat persona of Anderson herself. In an odd way, the sheer transitory nature of her art makes it just that much more appealingly vulnerable. This is especially true of Songs and Stories From Moby Dick, a musical reimagining of the Melville novel that recently opened at the bam's Next Wave Festival.
Whittled down to around 90 minutes since it was seen at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston last June, the show will most likely continue to be altered and refined as long as Anderson chooses to perform it. Right now, though, this free-associative flow of music, images, and sound collages seems to have found a satisfyingly correct shape and length, one that will likely only tire eyes and ears unresponsive to Anderson's whimsical take on Melville's world. As the title says, what we have here is a collection of songs and stories, more reflections and variations on themes found in Moby Dick than any attempt to retell a tale already told. Often a character, incident, or description from the book will set Anderson off to ponder the implications of homely facts about whales or sailing, unexpectedly arriving at a poignant reflection on the human condition.
An ingeniously constructed context is partly what draws the audience in and sets it thinking: The split-screen images of tumbling oceanographic icons, the oddly sensuous sounds of rushing seas and creaking ship timbers, the musical heartbeat of a 200-ton mammal, the wavelike ebb and flow of dramatic energy. An even more potent ingredient is Anderson's own pixie presence, her engaging way of presenting big ideas without being pretentious or patronizing, and her ability to tell a good story. The electronic musical tools she uses contribute to the Pied Piper effect: her trademark tape-bow violin, keyboard synthesizers, and a "talking stick" equipped with microprocessors that conjure up ghostly offstage orchestras. Whenever she leaves the stage and four male colleagues take over, Songs and Stories From Moby Dick suddenly no longer seems very interesting. No surprise about that. Laurie Anderson has always been, and continues to be, a one-woman show.