MABOU MINES: Sacrifice Goes With the Territory

THERE is an audience in New York that gravitates toward theater that is unpredictable, innovative and high-quality, especially if it is not being thrust at them with an aggressive Broadway-style marketing campaign.

This is the audience that finds its way to surprise hit shows like last year's "Mnemonic," performed by the Theatre de Complicite from London, or the long-running play "The Syringa Tree" by Pamela Gien.
And this is the audience that sustains experimental theater companies like Mabou Mines, the Wooster Group and Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theater, which spend months, even years,
mounting productions that play for sometimes very limited runs in small theaters.

"Ecco Porco," the nearly four-hour comic spectacle at Performance Space 122 in the East Village through Jan. 27, is both a state- of-the-art portrait of Mabou Mines and a career retrospective for the
64-year-old writer-director Lee Breuer, one of the company's founders. The main roles are performed by Ruth Maleczech, 62, another original member of Mabou Mines (along with JoAnne Akalaitis, Philip Glass and David Warrilow), and Frederick Neumann, 75, who joined the company not long after its inception in 1970. 

The play itself is an acid-trip collage of philosophy, mythology, corny jokes and lyric poetry. Set in an interspecies rehabilitation center for animation addicts, the play incorporates traces of Dante's "Divine
Comedy," the trial of the Russian stage director V. S. Meyerhold and a lecture on tantric sex, with cameo appearances by Orson Welles and Marge Simpson.

"It's very chaotic," Ms. Maleczech said recently. "That's not a bad thing. That's a good thing. It's the nature of the thing."

She, Mr. Breuer and Mr. Neumann had gathered for an interview at their publicist's midtown office during final rehearsals for "Ecco Porco," which began performances on Jan. 3. Also present was Karen Kandel, an actress in her 40's who is relatively new to Mabou Mines — she has been working with the others for only 11 years. Ms. Kandel's first appearance with the company was in "Lear," a gender-reversed version of "King Lear" that Mr. Breuer staged in 1990 (with Ms. Maleczech as Lear), and her most recent is "Ecco Porco." But she is best known for playing all the speaking roles in "Peter and Wendy," the 1996 puppet-theater adaptation by Liza Lorwin of J. M. Barrie's novel "Peter Pan," directed by Mr. Breuer. One of the best-received and most popular of the 50 theater pieces Mabou Mines has created, "Peter and Wendy" is returning to the New Victory Theater for a
four-week run beginning Feb. 1 (see accompanying article).

Thriving on chaos has been a survival strategy for Mabou Mines, which is an unusual entity on the landscape of American theater. Named after a town in Nova Scotia near where it began in 1970, the
company is distinguished for its sheer longevity as a continuously collaborative ensemble and its interdisciplinary working process, in which theater artists engage actively with guest composers, visual
artists and technology designers. And Mabou Mines provides a home base for Mr. Breuer's plays, which are written specifically for its core of award- winning actors. (Among them, Ms. Maleczech, Mr. Neumann and Ms. Kandel have won seven Obie Awards.) "I'm one of the few playwrights in history who've had this many great actors working on their original material," said Mr. Breuer, whose own numerous awards include a 1997 MacArthur grant. "There's me, Shakespeare, Molière and maybe Brecht." 

In the 1970's, the group divided its time between lesser-known works by Samuel Beckett and a series of Mr. Breuer's texts — "The Red Horse Animation," "The B. Beaver Animation" and "The Shaggy Dog Animation." In Mabou Mines parlance, animation means both bringing characters to life and cartoon, and it intentionally conjures both animus (the Latin word for soul) and animal — the multiple meanings enriching the word rather than canceling one another out. Mr. Breuer's work exemplifies postmodern literary playfulness and parodies it at the same time.

The main characters in "The Shaggy Dog Animation," a four-hour play performed at the Public Theater in 1978, were a canine named Rose and her unfaithful master- lover, John. A section of that work, featuring a tour de force performance by Bill Raymond as John, was presented separately as "A Prelude to Death in Venice." The story of Rose was further elaborated on in "An Epidog," performed at Here in 1996. "Ecco Porco" weaves together bits and pieces of "Shaggy Dog,"
"Prelude" and "Epidog," with new material for the character of Gonzo Porco (played by Mr. Neumann), a pig who also impersonates Truman Capote, Orson Welles and "Fred" Nietzsche. 

Sound complicated? Don't worry. Mr. Breuer understands how this all fits together and is happy to explain. "I realized I'm going to be working for the rest of my life on a trilogy called `La Divina
Caricatura,' " he said. "It's a loose sendup of Dante, with an Inferno, a Purgatorio and a Paradisio. But instead of being sequential, they are intercut. And the main characters each have their own realm —
the dog is in hell, the pig is in purgatory and the ant" — who figures in Part 3 — "is in heaven." A book-length version of "La Divina Caricatura" (the first two parts, anyway) is to be published next month by Sun and Moon Press. 

Mr. Breuer sees each figure not simply as a character in a story but as the personification of an idea, what Jung called an archetype: Rose is the Lover in Pain and Porco is the Art Martyr. "The story purports to be a love story," Mr. Breuer said, "but it's being eroded by its subtext. Subtext is like a virus that gets inside the body of a story and turns it into itself. The pig is a cynic who perceives himself as an artistic sufferer and picks metaphors of artistic martyrs, like Meyerhold and Welles. Ultimately, the narcissism of martyrdom is destroying what was a quite valid love affair."

Mr. Breuer's staging of his multi- level script adds even more layers of interpretation. "The idea is that everybody on the stage is making a movie, and every movie is at odds with every other movie," he said. "It's a war of who's projecting what onto whom." Typically, he uses the word "projection" to refer both to film displayed on a screen and to the psychological term for imposing on other people attributes we find unacceptable about ourselves.

Onstage, Rose is played by four actresses — Ms. Maleczech; her daughter, Clove Galilee (whose father is Mr. Breuer); Ms. Kandel and Maude Mitchell — as well as a dog puppet designed by Julie Archer and manipulated by Barbara Pollitt. This is partly a reference to the Asian theater styles that Mr. Breuer has studied, in which one role will be played by an actor, a singer and a dancer. But the multiplicity of lovelorn leading ladies has resonance in the personal life of the director, who has five children by four different women. And Mr. Neumann's performance of Porco and the character's identification with a variety of famous artists in history is also a revealing psychological self-portrait of Mr. Breuer, who has never been accused of having a small ego.

"Of course," he acknowledged, "it's a look at myself. What is my motivation for attempting to push the envelope at times? Why do I risk social disapproval? Why do I clearly attempt to defeat myself?
Would I rather take the suffering than the success? Is that the key to the so- called Art Martyr? Porco is an ironic point of view on this. He won't rest until he's turned everybody against him. Why does he have to do this? The more I learn about it, the more I can write about it. My closest friends are helping me look at myself in these particular terms. And I'm trying to help them look at themselves."

The title of the play intentionally echoes that of Nietzsche's intellectual autobiography, "Ecce Homo." The reference is neither idle nor cheap. Like Nietzsche's work (subtitled "How One Becomes What
One Is"), "Ecco Porco" is meant to be an investigation of identity that is by turns obsessively self-referential, witty, grandiose and profound — that is to say, fully human. 

Not everybody enjoys Mr. Breuer's mixture of philosophy and wordplay. "The Gospel at Colonus," Mr. Breuer's and the composer Bob Telson's adaptation of Sophocles' "Oedipus at Colonus" as a black gospel service, received rave reviews when it opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1983. But when the show arrived on Broadway in 1988, after touring successfully and being filmed for PBS, the New York Times critic Frank Rich praised the score but dismissed Mr. Breuer's idea for the show as "superficial, Ivy League bull-session cleverness." "The Warrior Ant," which Mr. Breuer and Mr. Telson took to BAM in 1988, was widely perceived as confused and confusing. 

Even his biggest champions acknowledge that Mr. Breuer's work sometimes gets overstuffed. "It can sink of its own weight," Ms. Male czech mused, adding, "Those can be very good ideas that can sink

Still, many admire Mr. Breuer's passion and the rewards that come with the risks he and Mabou Mines are willing to take. "I personally find his work to be enormously engaging and, at its best, theatrically brilliant," said Nigel Redden, the director of the Lincoln Center Festival, who presented the official premiere of "Peter and Wendy" and other Breuer pieces at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., where he is the general director. "He can be uneven, but he's someone who very deeply plays with the idea of theater. And even in rough shape, the ideas are worth grappling with."

IN its long history, Mabou Mines has gone through many ups and downs. During the mid-1980's, when the company was in residence at the Public Theater, its 10 members included 7 or 8 directors who generated projects, and one or two large-scale productions appeared each year. In the early 90's, several key members left, including Ms. Akalaitis, and the company scaled back, some years producing no new work. Currently, Mabou Mines is on an upswing. The East Village studio that serves as its headquarters was recently renovated by the City of New York; located in the same building as P.S. 122, the company's space now includes a theater that seats 75. And the always shaky
finances of Mabou Mines have been improved by successful touring engagements. (Their annual operating budget is $600,000.) "Belén: A Book of Hours," a 1999 theater piece about a notorious women's prison in Mexico, directed by Ms. Maleczech and performed in Spanish, has played to enthusiastic reviews in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities. "Hajj," a high-tech performance poem written by Mr. Breuer for Ms. Maleczech in 1983, continues to tour

"Peter and Wendy" has been a big hit and could be a real money- maker if the company were willing to license the work to commercial producers. But the notion of hiring understudies and replacements
is alien to Mabou Mines. The lead puppeteer for "Peter and Wendy" is Basil Twist, whose career has taken off since the 1998 success of his underwater puppet ballet "Symphonie Fantastique," and Mr. Breuer is reluctant to do "Peter and Wendy" unless Mr. Twist, Ms. Kandel and Johnny Cunningham, who wrote and performs the music, are available. "So we don't get a big national tour, and we don't get oodles of money," he said. "But we do preserve what's special about the piece."

Over the years, the original members of Mabou Mines have sacrificed to make their brand of theater. Yet the quality of the work can be immediately evident to an audience. 

"This work is difficult to make," said Ms. Maleczech, "and sometimes you get so involved in the making of it that you don't realize its effect. When we showed the first act of `Ecco Porco' last March,
one of the real surprises was that it is entertaining. It's structured so that it takes place in a rehab center for Animations Anonymous, people who are addicted to animating personalities. And the audience sits among us. We made ways for them to stand up, go get coffee or a doughnut or a sandwich, so they would have a little relief. But actually, they didn't need any relief. People laughed like crazy. 

"I don't know what people take away with them," she continued. "But I know they're entertained in ways that sometimes they're not in the theater. It's not like the regular theater, where you sit back and wait to be entertained. They have to come halfway toward us, and we go halfway toward them, and it's like a meeting in midair."

New York Times, January 13, 2002