Features: Ruth Maleczech obit for American Theatre magazine

December 29, 2013

A somewhat edited version of my remembrance of Ruth Maleczech appeared in the January 2014 issue of American Theatre magazine. Here’s the full text:

ruth m for ATMost people don’t know that Ruth Maleczech, who died September 30 at the age of 74, was one of the greatest actors of our time. If she had worked primarily in film, Maleczech would be ranked alongside Anna Magnani, Geraldine Page, Jeanne Moreau, Helen Mirren, and Judi Dench – world-renowned, consummately skilled actors whose earthiness, authority, intelligence, feminine strength, and at times scary darkness carved new depths in the portrayal of human experience. Instead, she devoted her life to working in the theater, mostly in New York, mostly with Mabou Mines, the legendary theater collective she formed in 1970 with Lee Breuer, JoAnne Akalaitis, Philip Glass, and the late David Warrilow.

Born in Cleveland and raised in Arizona, Maleczech met Breuer, her life partner and the father of her two children, in 1957 at UCLA. She and her Mabou Mines cohort took the art of acting extremely seriously and spent many years thirstily investigating every idea about acting, from ’50s Happenings in San Francisco to Stanislavsky to the Open Theater to Grotowski. They spent formative years in Paris, where lucrative jobs dubbing foreign films taught them to create characters through voice alone; in the artistic ferment that was New York’s Soho in the 1970s, they absorbed the cross-pollination of postmodern music, theater, visual art, and live performance. They absorbed all that information into their bodies, and Maleczech in particular made a point of passing it along to other members of Mabou Mines and young artists who worked at Re.Cher.Chez, the studio she and Breuer founded with Bill Raymond to nurture the seeds of experimentation Mabou Mines planted in its tours and workshops around the country. (Re.Cher.Chez morphed into the ongoing Mabou Mines/Suite program.)

In person she had an unforgettable, striking visage, with her flaming red hair and gap-toothed grin. Ben Brantley’s generous obituary in the New York Times mentioned one critic describing her as “a Technicolor Lucy on a binge.” Onstage she was almost frightening in her power, like a witch. Her face was an Oriental mask, and her wonderful rich voice came from somewhere far within. To witness her brilliance, you literally had to be there.

I had the pleasure and the good fortune of watching Maleczech perform for more than 30 years, in productions staged by an array of adventurous directors, including Peter Sellars, Anne Bogart, Martha Clarke, David Greenspan, and Erin Mee. But nothing stands out more vividly in my memory than a handful of her extraordinary artistic collaborations with Akalaitis and Breuer.

I first laid eyes on her in Dead End Kids, Akalaitis’s 1980 multimedia “history of nuclear power,” playing an iconic yet colloquial Marie Curie. She anchored the enormous cast of Akalaitis’s exciting, turbulent and rare staging of Jean Genet’s The Screens at the Guthrie Theater in 1989 playing Said’s mother with a kind of malevolent majesty. And it’s impossible to forget her Annette in Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Through the Leaves, a coarse and plain-spoken outer-boroughs butcher on the outside, girlish romantic on the inside. With every Maleczech performance, you got the sense that you were seeing the merest tip of what she could do, but even that tip suggested complexity and contradiction.

Like Akalaitis but even more so, Lee Breuer counted on Maleczech’s fathomless resources for the work he created for her to perform. The two of them were like John Cassevetes and Gena Rowlands, or Fellini and Giuletta Masina, or Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann – writer-directors who created impossibly subtle, demanding roles for partners they knew could nail it.

Two Breuer-Maleczech pieces stand out for me. Hajj (1983) was an hour-long solo delivered sitting at a vanity table facing a triptych of tall, ornately framed mirrors which periodically revealed video images of objects on the table or memories from her past. (Videographer Craig Jones and designer Julie Archer were crucial collaborators on this piece.) Performing the text, which described a metaphysical journey to pay off a debt to someone who has already died, Maleczech spoke in an even voice, her gestures meticulous and understated. Her wide, alert face expressed an inscrutable calm. Under the lights she became a sorceress harboring secret, unpredictable forces. She really did make you think that she was summoning from the depths of her soul the images that appeared on the glass. And in the long, ever-morphing series of pieces (starting with The Shaggy Dog Animation up through Summa Dramatica) that adds up to Breuer’s magnum opus La Divina Caricatura, Maleczech played the lovelorn dog Rose, who took many forms. In An Epidog (1995), she manifested in the afterlife painted and costumed in white and gold like a Hindu deity visiting Oaxaca for Day of the Dead and recalled the last few days of her life as a dog, represented onstage by a Bunraku puppet. To watch Barbara Pollitt manipulate puppet-Rose while honey-voiced Maleczech spoke Rose’s lines into a microphone across the stage was to grasp non-Western theater in a nutshell.

Beyond being phenomenally talented, she was kind, loving, and extremely honest. I got to interview her a number of times for articles about Mabou Mines in the Soho News, the New York Times, and a 1984 cover story for this magazine. She was a precise and succinct truth-teller. She advised artists, “Don’t call it experimental because people will say the experiment has failed. Just call it your work.” Talking about fund-raising for Off-Broadway theater as opposed to independent film, she said, “When you give money to Mabou Mines, the way it works is you don’t get it back.”

Most of all, I remember being extremely touched hearing her talk about the sacrifices she’d made to be the uncompromising artist she was. “The children have paid dearly,” she said, referring to her son (Lute Ramblin) and daughter (Clove Galilee). “They’ve paid with lack of time, lack of parent input when they need it, having to be sick at home alone sometimes when it would be nicer if somebody was there with you. They pay with not having things that their friends have, objects, you know, property. They pay by living in a very dangerous neighborhood because that’s the one that can be afforded. Sometimes I think the kids just look at you and think you’re a real asshole because you blew it. Especially in the ’80s. These are not the times to be a poor, struggling artist. It tends to be that when they need something really badly and there’s no money for them to have it, it just feels bad. Other times that doesn’t seem to be the most important thing. Sometimes they think it’s great because you do it.”

3 Responses to “Features: Ruth Maleczech obit for American Theatre magazine”

  1. Gregory Mehrten Says:

    Thank you, Don!

  2. Renee Levine Packer Says:

    Don Shewey! Thank you so very much for your crystal-clear, poignant — and oh so apt — essay on Ruth Maleczech. You’re right, how could one ever forget “Through the Leaves.”
    Renee Levine (Packer)

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