Review: 'Honor, an Artist Lecture by Suzanne Bocanegra starring Lili Taylor' at the Walker

Person stands in front of colorful background
Lili Taylor in "Honor, an Artist Lecture by Suzanne Bocanegra starring Lili Taylor," playing through Saturday at the Walker Art Center.
Stephanie Berger

Lili Taylor, the sprightly actress who you might know from the mainstream films “The Conjuring” and “Say Anything...” or her extensive work in indie cinema, either has an unusually easy or an unusually difficult job at the Walker Art Center just now.

She stars in the entertainingly named “Honor, an Artist Lecture by Suzanne Bocanegra starring Lili Taylor,” playing through tomorrow as part of the Walker’s Out There 2024 series. But her role is a surprising one.

The playwright, Suzanne Bocanegra, sits at a small desk to one side of the stage, script in hand, speaking into a microphone. Taylor stands on the other side of the stage, before a huge projection screen, flipping through slides. Taylor wears an earpiece, through which Bocanegra feeds her dialogue, comprising a lecture on a Medieval tapestry, which Taylor repeats.

This occasionally leads to moments of onstage confusion, with Taylor asking Bocanegra to repeat dialogue, or must flip back and forth through slides to find her place. These moments give the show an infrequent but enjoyable sense of harmless chaos, and it’s hard not to wonder if these moments are also scripted.

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I ran into Taylor in the Walker lobby after the show and she assured me they weren’t. Bocanegra actually is giving Taylor the dialogue moments before the actress speaks it.

This conceit is appropriately outre, which is the sort of stuff that the Out There series specializes in. Bocanegra has used this approach several times already since her first staged art lecture in 2010, with Taylor and with other actresses, including Frances McDormand. But in this case, the approach feels especially poignant.

Bocanegra is a visual artist — we see some of her work in the slides — and so the subject is art. Specifically, her text examines “Honor,” an enormous tapestry on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The piece itself is fascinating, an overfull assemblage of honorable figures from history standing above an unruly collection of dishonorable figures from history. As happens at art lectures, Bocanegra (via Taylor) provides the history of the piece, its provenance and insights into the contents.

But Bocanegra does not approach the subject in dry academic terms. Her narration is given to sly faux-naive jokes, surprising trivia and long discursions that explores themes and ideas inspired by the tapestry. These digressions are fascinating (the origins of the Girl Scouts, including the founder being partially deafened by rice thrown at her wedding), bizarre (a Texas pageant featuring kitschy costuming intended to represent great women) and often poignant (the playwright’s mother and her relationship with crafts).

She tells us that these ancient tapestries were created by artisans looking at a painting that was intended as a template, a humble and undervalued original doubled by a flashier duplicate. Suddenly the doubling of the artist/playwright and the Hollywood actress starts feeling especially pointed.

There is another moment of doubling at the end of the play that I dare not give away, as it’s entirely unexpected and the shock of it is glorious; I will mention that it includes local performers. I have seen several Out There shows that end like this, with an unpredictable coda of explosive beauty. This one dazzles.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.