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`Empty Places' Has a Social Conscience

THE visual elements of ``Empty Places'' come largely from New York City, a place that's the opposite of empty. This indicates that the title should be taken metaphorically - referring to the emptiness that may persist in ourselves, and in our hearts, despite the bustle around us. What makes Laurie Anderson's new show one of the best opening nights in Next Wave history is partly its social conscience, which sets it apart from most of the ``performance art'' to wend its way through BAM and other venues in recent years. But it's also a very entertaining work, with vigorous songs (if a little too pop-tune flavored for my taste) and monologues with laugh-out-loud moments. At its best, it fuses Ms. Anderson's artistic and political interests into a seamless whole, as when she compares national leaders to musicians. Hitler, she tells us, was a drummer - nothing but rhythm, rhythm, rhythm - while Ronald Reagan sang only one number: ``When You Wish Upon a Star.''

``Empty Places'' is very ambitious, with huge projection screens and sophisticated sound devices - including electronic instruments and microphones that make Anderson's solo voice into a whole chorus.

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Anderson knows how to humanize her technology, though, and at a few amazing moments the show becomes intimate and wistful. The ending is a triumph of this, as Anderson faces her audience and tells a quiet but devastating anecdote about a poor woman she encountered in a hospital emergency room. It's a small story but, told with great feeling and simplicity - and a powerful conclusion to a most impressive evening.

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