Most people don’t know that Ruth Maleczech, who died in September 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, Maleczech devoted her life to working in the theatre, mostly in New York, mostly with Mabou Mines, the legendary theatre collective she formed in 1969 with Lee Breuer, JoAnne Akalaitis, Philip Glass and the late David Warrilow.
Born 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 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, theatre, visual art and live performance. They took 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, a studio she and Breuer founded.
In person, Maleczech 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 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 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 butcher on the outside, a 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.
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 Giulietta 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 the actress 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. Her wide, alert face expressed an inscrutable calm. Under the lights she became a sorceress harboring secret, unpredictable forces; she made 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 add up to Breuer’s magnum opus La Divina Caricatura, Male-czech 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 the Day of the Dead, recalling 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 theatre in a nutshell.
Beyond being phenomenally talented, she was kind, loving and extremely honest. A precise and succinct truth-teller, Maleczech advised artists, “Don’t call it experimental, because people will say the experiment has failed. Just call it your work.” Talking about fundraising for Off-Broadway theatre 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, not having things that their friends have—objects, you know, property. These are not the times to be a poor, struggling artist. 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.”
Critic and author Don Shewey lives in New York City.