A minefield of black balloons, knifed in the dark by ninjas. A slow ebb of liquid latex, seeping out of a wound like so much milk. Aerial cameras to provide the illusion of flight even as they amplify the earthbound nature of their subject. A trio of blue-haired nymphs: the real, the imagined, and the digital. The dissonant overlap between the present, on-stage action and the pre-taped and projected future (or subtextual) actions. Classic Bowie songs (and a few new ones), reinterpreted to fit the mood of his final work, the experimental rock musical Lazarus. Above all else, passion.
The plot of Lazarus, a follow-up to The Man Who Fell to Earth, is bare-boned, and that’s fine, because the animalistic director Ivo van Hove only needs a concept to work from, and in this case, it is the isolation of Thomas Jerome Newton (Michael C. Hall), an alien who has lived amongst us for forty years, unable to return to his home, his family, and haunted by the loss of those he–an immortal man–has loved. The curtains, screens, and glass windows that separate Newton from the backgrounded band are intention: they shut the world out, yes, but also cage him in with the screed of foreign (to him) media.
As a literal work, Lazarus is every inch a failure. But taken as the struggle of art–by nature something foreign, or alien, because it has not yet been born–to find its way into (or out of) our world, it’s a powerful piece. And it’s worth remembering, too, that even a failure–Newton’s plans go terribly awry, sabotaged to some extent by the physically disconnected Valentine (Michael Esper)–has its worth. Surely the pain of failing to reach others will resonate with some of the audience; surely the craft and tricks of the director will inspire the avid students and scholars in the audience. There are some who will dismiss the entire affair as bunk–as always happens to art–but there are also those who will find themselves unable to rise after the show, succumbing perhaps to a Stendhal-like syndrome they cannot describe.
Personally, this is why I turn to off-Broadway theater, and why I admire the power of icons like Bowie, whose wattage can ensure that a beautiful mess like this sees the light of day. Here is a show that doesn’t care for the carefully curated conventions of Broadway, which must appeal to a demographic and shine the rough edges away. It is not difficult to produce something poppy that an audience will eat up–just listen to the dismal earworms that pollute the airwaves, or read about the tonal formulas employed by the big hitmakers–so it is all the more vital that we find those who are willing to surprise us not with what we’ve been taught to like, but a thing that we did not know we needed.
Bowie is gone, but his work–including Lazarus, now–remains. Isn’t that worth the mess?