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PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 26.2 (2004) 40-46

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Lee Breuer's Classic Comics

Gerald Rabkin

Mabou Mines Dollhouse, adapted from Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House and directed by Lee Breuer, St. Ann's Warehouse, Brooklyn, NY, November 8-December 21, 2003.

Thirty-four years and counting . . . Lee Breuer is still at it. His two latest pieces—Ecco Porco (2002) and Dollhouse (2003)—with the experimental theatre collective, Mabou Mines, of which he is a founding member—continue the categories of work which established the group's reputation in the early 70s: imaginatively precise, innovative stagings of the plays and fiction of Samuel Beckett (an author to whom the group has remained committed through the years) and unconventional choral theatre pieces based on poetic texts by Breuer, labeled Animations. Originally performed in art galleries and museums, the group moved beyond an art milieu into a theatre context when Mabou Mines Presents Samuel Beckett, directed by Breuer, opened at the Theatre for the New City, New York City, in the spring of 1975.

That program consisted of two short plays, Play and Come and Go, and an adapted prose fragment, The Lost Ones, distinguished by the modulated power of its acting and visualization. David Warrilow was mesmerizing as the narrator of The Lost Ones, a vision of purgatory as a "flattened cylinder fifty meters round and eighteen high" into which are crammed two hundred "lost bodies," each searching restlessly for its mate; moving about the cylinder's center, waiting their turn to futilely climb ladders to take them to one of the niches or tunnels that honeycomb the cylinder's walls. The performance was matched by the piece's innovative visual brilliance, set by Breuer in a claustrophobic cubicle padded with gray foam rubber (literally a padded cell). The audience peered down at Warrilow's emaciated presence as he slowly unveiled a small sculptural representation of the cylinder he described, complete with a group of miniature toy bodies. With delicate precision, Warrilow used a pair of forceps to position these homunculi in the grooves and niches of the cylindrical model. Each member of the audience was given a pair of binoculars with which to observe the proceedings in voyeuristic closeup. Beckett's molecular purgatory was further evoked by ensemble-member [End Page 40] Philip Glass's tape-recorded music, which (as one critic wrote) "seems to be played by electrons rather than instruments."

The production audacity of the Beckett pieces was also evident in Breuer and Mabou Mines' concurrent work, the Animations. The Animations' dependence on a non-narrative visual art vocabulary obscured their roots in Breuer's poetic imagination. At heart, each piece was an intensely personal poem, a beast epic centered on an animal as protagonist. Horse, beaver, dog served as dominant images to illuminate the burdens of the contemporary consciousness assaulted by an overload of images and social roles. In order to fully realize his poetic vision, Breuer the poet recognized that language—however fragmented and elliptical—was not enough. He learned from the world of ensemble theatre that the group's collective consciousness can—must—enhance the literary text. He learned from the worlds of art and film that visual imagery carries its own signification. He learned from the world of music the power of pure, non-programmatic sound. And so Breuer the radical director emerged as the double of Breuer the poet. For his total vision was and remains dialectical, a synthesis of opposites and oppositions.

Without conscious intellectual indebtedness, Breuer accepted the then ascendant theories of literary deconstruction, particularly Roland Barthes's premise in S/Z that "the work of the commentary [for which we can read 'production'], once it is separated from any ideology of totality, consists precisely in manhandling the text, interrupting it." So in his Animations Breuer "manhandles" his own texts, for the very same reasons that deconstructive critics "misread" literary texts: if the ground text—classic or contemporary—can no longer reveal an unequivocal meaning, the director can recuperate its many voices only through the intervention...


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