Posts Tagged ‘lee breuer’

R.I.P. Lee Breuer

January 28, 2021

Lee Breuer, the playwright, director, and co-founder of Mabou Mines who died January 3 at the age of 83, was one of the most original, uncompromising American theater artists of the last century. As a director he applied his wild imagination to classics by Beckett, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Wedekind, and Tennessee Williams, on a scale from intimate (his production of Beckett’s The Lost Ones was staged in a stairwell at the Public Theater) to spectacular (The Gospel at Colonus, his adaptation of Sophocles with music by Bob Telson, enlisted two chamber ensembles and a massive institutional gospel choir). His own writing consisted of dense performance poems streaked with jive and jokes. A trio of animal-related Animations (Red Horse, B.Beaver, Shaggy Dog) led to an ever-expanding cosmic-comic mythological epic revolving around the recurring characters of Rose, a lovelorn dog, her faithless master John, and the “art martyr” Gonzo Porco. A true postmodern artist, he immersed himself in pop culture (beatnik poetry, rock and roll, Hollywood movies) while also cultivating serious scholarship in Japanese theater technique and absorbing everything he could from Bertolt Brecht as theoretician, iconoclast, and brash self-mythologizer.

Some artists labeled “downtown/experimental/avant-garde” are content to toil in a hermetically sealed aesthetic environment, but not Lee Breuer – he kept track of everything and followed all developments in regional and commercial American theater. In his own way he craved mainstream success; he got closest with The Gospel at Colonus, which became a Broadway show, a PBS special, and a Warner Bros. original cast album co-produced by Donald Fagen of Steely Dan and was one of the most ecstatic performances I’ve ever witnessed. (When I first saw the show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I sat next to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, behind Leonard Bernstein, and a few rows away from Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close — everyone wanted to see this show.) His work with actors was phenomenal. No one who saw them will ever forget David Warrilow in The Lost Ones, Bill Raymond in A Prelude to Death in Venice, Karen Kandel voicing all the roles in Peter and Wendy, and Ruth Maleczech (his first wife and the mother of two of his five children) in Hajj, An Epidog, and basically anything she did. The late playwright Harry Kondoleon, who observed Breuer working with students at Yale, said, “He digs around in the back of your bottom drawer til he finds the dreadful secret part of your personality you try to keep hidden away, and he brings it out and makes it the powerful center of your performance.”

I’ve written a lot about Mabou Mines over the years and interviewed Breuer with other members of the company on several occasions – for a Soho News cover story (co-authored with Robert Coe), for an article in American Film about Hajj, for an Arts & Leisure story in the New York Times about Ecco Porco. The only time I got Lee more or less alone was when I interviewed him for an American Theatre cover story on Mabou Mines, when he was juggling multiple projects outside the company: an undercooked The Tempest for Shakespeare in the Park, a brilliant production of Wedekind’s Lulu for the American Repertory Theater in Boston, The Gospel at Colonus and a second project with Bob Telson, The Warrior Ant. When I look back at the unedited transcript (see here), it’s a characteristic slice of Lee in conversation – philosophy and practicality mixed with wide-ranging literary and musical references but delivered in a steady stream of casual, engaged, chatty conversation.

I like this picture I took of him in 2015 at the party celebrating Jim O’Quinn’s retirement as editor of American Theatre, next to Teresa Eyring (CEO of Theater Communications Group) and longtime Mabou Miner Greg Mehrten – a titan of American theater with his hand in his pocket and a sly grin on his face.

From the Deep Archives: Mabou Mines’s HAJJ

May 7, 2020

In this time when live theater is not happening, the veteran downtown troupe Mabou Mines has been posting online treasures from its archives — clips and documentation and full-length videos from its long illustrious career. This week the focus is on a 1993 piece called Hajj, written and directed by Lee Breuer, performed by Ruth Maleczech, with set and lighting by Julie Archer and video by Craig Jones. Because I wrote an article about the production and its cutting-edge use of video technology for American Film magazine, the company asked if I would talk about what it was like seeing the show in person back in the day. My comments were posted on the company’s Facebook page, which you can view here. And you can check out the history of the production on the Mabou Mines website here. There’s a link on the website to watch the show on Vimeo, which is necessarily a rudimentary document that is no substitute for the magical live performance, but it will give you a sense of the work.

 

 

Performance Diary: THE GOSPEL AT COLONUS in Central Park

September 9, 2018

An old man seeking sanctuary is stopped at the border and separated from his two daughters, who are taken off to prison – especially cruel since the man is blind. The question of whether immigrants and refugees are welcome in this country was not in play when The Gospel at Colonus premiered in 1983, but it added another layer of sentiment to the beautiful 35th anniversary restaging at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park of Lee Breuer and Bob Telson’s musical mashup of Greek tragedy and an African-American church service, which had me in tears several times.

The evening was chilly and it drizzled steadily the first half of the show, but since it was the last night of a short run, the performers were real troupers. So great to hear this fantastic score again, with one killer song after another: “How Shall I See You Through My Tears?,” “Numberless Are The World’s Wonders,” “Sunlight of No Light,” “Eternal Sleep,” “Lift Him Up.” So great to see many of the original cast still working their magic (J.D. Steele, Kevin Davis, Carolyn Johnson-White); Bob Telson at the piano alongside the original musicians Sam Butler, Jr., Butch Heyward, and Leroy Clouden; the amazing Blind Boys of Alabama with a new lead singer, Jimmy Carter, in place of the late great Clarence Fountain (the first blind man to play the blind king Oedipus); Willie Rogers channeling Sam Cooke with the Legendary Soul Stirrers. A real preacher, the Reverend Dr. Earl F. Miller, played the Messenger, the role – part MC, part minister, part shadow Oedipus — first filled by Morgan Freeman, and the terrific Greta Oglesby (whom I admired as the lead in Caroline, or Change at the Guthrie Theater) played Antigone, the part memorably filled by Isabell Monk in the original production.

It’s such a strange piece, in its way, tapping the roots of theater in spiritual ceremony both conceptually and concretely. It’s a tribute to the genius of Lee Breuer that it hangs together the way it does. One of Breuer’s great gifts as a director is to empower talented performers to create performances that are authentically their own. We saw that all over the stage at the Delacorte. And the many forces (financial and administrative) that helped create this run in the park share a commitment to theater as a utopian proposition, a place to keep alive a strong, deep, inclusive vision of humanity and love. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

From the deep archives: Mabou Mines’ HAJJ

November 10, 2013

hajj 2
Thinking about the late great Ruth Maleczech, who died September 30 at age 74, sent me back to a feature story I wrote for American Film magazine in 1983 about Hajj, the beautiful multimedia piece she made for Mabou Mines with writer-director Lee Breuer and videographer Craig Jones.

It’s funny to read today a piece about cutting-edge video technology 30 years ago. Everything that made creating Hajj cumbersome and frightfully expensive has become obsolete with digital video editing — kids can make equally sophisticated video on their laptops after school these days.

Nothing as good as this memorable performance poem, though.

The actress Maleczech sits down at a vanity table, her back to the audience. She faces a triptych of tall, ornately framed mirrors and begins to apply an elaborate makeup. When she reaches for a hairpiece, a video monitor suddenly reveals itself behind one of the mirrors and a closed-circuit camera zooms in on the hairpiece.

As she continues putting on her makeup, monitors behind the other two mirrors flicker on, picking up similarly specific images – a necklace, the smoke from her cigarette. The actress murmurs the text (picked up by a high-powered body mike) as the screen images float alongside her reflection in the mirror, and these are soon joined by another layer of imagery. Filmed sequences showing a child on the lap of an old man and a truck driving through a barren landscape are superimposed on closed-circuit images of Maleczech’s face or objects on the makeup table. As suddenly and magically as they appear, the video pictures periodically drop out altogether, leaving a woman alone at the mirror with her reflection instead of – her dreams? her memories? her soul?

You can read the whole piece online here.

%d bloggers like this: