Posts Tagged ‘mabou mines’

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.

 

 

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.”

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.

R.I.P. Ruth Maleczech

October 19, 2013

ruthmaleczech
While I was out of the country, the great American stage actress and Mabou Mines co-founder Ruth Maleczech died September 30 at the age of 74.  I had the pleasure of watching her work for more than 30 years and give memorable performances in productions staged by JoAnne Akalaitis (Kroetz’s Through the Leaves for Mabou Mines, Genet’s The Screens for the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis), Peter Sellars (Velimir Khlebnikov’s Zangezi), and most especially her longtime partner Lee Breuer (Hajj, An Epidog).  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”).

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, American Theatre magazine, and the New York Times. 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 the son (Lute Ramblin) and daughter (Clove Galilee) she had with Breuer. “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.”

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