When Deidre O’Connell accepted the Tony Award in June for her shattering performance in Lucas Hnath’s play Dana H., she shared a piece of personal wisdom that immediately became part of theatre history. “I would love for this little prize to be a token for every person who is wondering, ‘Should I be trying to make something that could work on Broadway or that could win me a Tony Award? Or should I be making the weird art that is haunting me, that frightens me, that I don’t know how to make, that I don’t know if anyone in the whole world will understand?’ Please let me standing here be a little sign to you from the universe to make the weird art.”
The legendary New York-based theatre collective Mabou Mines has been making the weird art for more than five decades, if “weird” is understood to mean unusual, original, innovative, unpredictable, adventurous, genre-defying, unconventional, and not catering to anyone’s idea of Broadway-bound commercial theatre. In 1970, two American couples—Lee Breuer and Ruth Maleczech, JoAnne Akalaitis and Philip Glass—and British actor David Warrilow, who had met in Europe and spent five years observing and studying with the Berliner Ensemble, the Living Theatre, and Jerzy Grotowski, returned to North America. Holed up on a farm outside the town in Nova Scotia whose name they adopted, Mabou Mines created their first theatre piece, The Red Horse Animation, written and directed by Breuer. A 50th anniversary celebration of the troupe’s beginning, postponed for two years like so many things because of the pandemic, took place June 23-25 at 122 Community Center in the East Village (the venue that veteran theatregoers will probably always think of as P.S. 122).
The celebration unofficially began on Tuesday, June 21, with a memorial tribute to Lee Breuer, who died January 2 at the age of 83, at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. (Video of that festive event can be found on the Mabou Mines website.) Next, a party at 122CC on June 22 honored Gail Merrifield Papp and Mia Yoo, representing two organizations—the Public Theater and La MaMa ETC—who were crucial supporters in the early days of Mabou Mines. And the heart of the 50th anniversary festival comprised three days of readings, excerpts, re-creations, concerts, art installations, and films covering the entire span of Mabou Mines history.
Scheduling conflicts prevented me from attending the festival on Thursday or Saturday, which meant I didn’t get to see the great clown and soulful actor Bill Irwin do The Lost Ones, the adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s short story that David Warrilow originally performed under Breuer’s direction in a stairwell at the Public Theater. I missed seeing the mighty team of Elizabeth Marvel and Bill Camp reading the roles played by Ruth Maleczech (who died in 2013) and Fred Neumann in JoAnne Akalaitis’s unforgettable production of Franz Kroetz’s Through the Leaves. And I would dearly love to have seen Akalaitis reprise The Red Horse Animation alongside Clove Galilee (daughter of Breuer and Maleczech) and David Neumann (son of Fred Neumann and company member Honora Fergusson, both of whom died in 2012) in roles first played by Maleczech and Warrilow.
But the four events I was able to witness on Friday spanned the entire length of Mabou Mines’s existence, and represented virtually all the hallmarks of the company’s artistry. Devoted from the beginning to original work (generated first by Breuer and later by others), Mabou Mines also dedicated themselves to championing Beckett; treating him as some mixture of honorary member and reigning deity, they went beyond Waiting for Godot and Endgame to concentrate on tiny, rarely mounted texts. For the festival, Akalaitis directed readings of Play and Come and Go, two brief, surprisingly funny Beckett pieces that Breuer originally staged with music composed by Glass (years before Einstein on the Beach put him on the map). Ellen McElduff recreated her role in Come and Go, while Clove Galilee and actor-playwright Ellen McLaughlin (probably best known as the original Angel in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America) played parts and emitted curious, dove-like sounds once assayed by Maleczech and Akalaitis herself.
For Play, a nutty love triangle, McElduff and McLaughlin were joined by downtown genius David Greenspan, who put his own quirky spin on a role once filled by David Warrilow (who died in 1995). (When I spoke to Greenspan briefly afterwards, he noted that he’d unconsciously absorbed the Beckett character’s drunken hiccup into his own play The Myopia). Serious commitment to excellence in acting has always characterized Mabou Mines, along with a core vision of actors as empowered artists.
When I moved from Boston to New York in the last days of 1979, I was already aware of two early Mabou Mines masterworks, Dressed Like an Egg (1977) and The Shaggy Dog Animation (1978), from reading mouth-watering descriptions of them in the Village Voice and the Soho Weekly News. I did get to see A Prelude to Death in Venice (1980), a chunk of Shaggy Dog that got spun off as a solo for the company’s great comic actor Bill Raymond—the first of 32 Mabou Mines productions I’ve seen to date. But I always rued missing the short run of Dressed Like an Egg, a performance collage adapted from the work of Colette and staged by Akalaitis, the first Mabou show directed by someone other than Breuer. I felt that even more strongly after seeing Akalaitis’s second production, Dead End Kids: A History of Nuclear Power, at the Public Theater in 1980. When performed onstage, it was a freewheeling intellectual vaudeville using a variety show format to express multiple perspectives on nuclear power. Akalaitis subsequently made a film of Dead End Kids, reorganizing the material into a narrative about the spirit of scientific research throughout history.
For the 50th anniversary celebration, director Katie Pearl (who with her filmmaker wife Michelle Memran created The Rest I Make Up, the fantastic 2018 documentary about María Irene Fornés) took on the brave task of adapting those two Akalaitis productions into a one-hour presentation. The Egg section began as a slideshow about the original production’s design elements and segued into a few excerpts from the Colette-derived text, performed by a cast of five, including McElduff in her original role and, in the parts David Warrilow played, Andy Paris, who co-created The Laramie Project as a member of Tectonic Theater Project. The Dead End Kids chunk focused on the history of alchemy, with some dialogue from Goethe’s Faust spoken in German by original cast member Greg Mehrten and newcomer Larissa Marten. I had high hopes that Pearl would have her chorus of nine rambunctious youngsters recreate my fondest memory of Kids at the Public, a delirious dance routine based on the Four Sergeants’ post-Hiroshima pop hit “A Hubba Hubba Hubba,” which proclaimed, “It’s mighty smoky over Tokyo!” Alas, no. But this segment of the festival reflected additional hallmarks of Mabou Mines: collective creation, cross-pollination with other companies, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and cultivation of younger artists.
I only caught the tail end of the concert featuring musical excerpts from La Divina Caricatura (the name Breuer ultimately gave to his ever-evolving body of work), composed and music directed by Lincoln Schleifer, before I raced off to watch the staged reading of Patricia Spears Jones’s play Mother, an adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s 1906 novel about revolution, first mounted by John McGrath at La MaMa in 1994 with Maleczech in the title role. Incorporating music and film from his La MaMa production, McGrath elicited powerful performances from his cast of five: Dael Orlandersmith as the Mother, original cast members Ching Valdes-Aran and David Neumann as the nun and the spy, and Andres Nicolas Chaves and Deandre Sevon as the son and the rebel who radicalizes him. The play couldn’t have felt more fresh. “Isn’t it time to express our rage? It sometimes takes everything you’ve got to change men’s minds.”
To me, these last two events represented Mabou Mines’s evolution from an all-white ensemble to a collective of multiracial artists and leaders—a long game intentionally undertaken by the company starting in the early 1980s.
Ultimately, the 50th anniversary program saluted not only Mabou Mines’s body of work but also its place in an extended community of downtown artists. In the audience and in the hallways I spied numerous art world luminaries showing up to bask in the celebration: Philip Glass (of course), Laurie Anderson, Penny Arcade, Jennifer Tipton, Linda Chapman, Morgan Jenness, Nicky Paraiso, and performers off-duty from pieces I didn’t get to see (Karen Kandel, Rinde Eckert). I couldn’t help feeling the presence of ghosts: Breuer, Maleczech, Warrilow, and bygone friends who would surely have been there, including American Theatre’s founding editor, Jim O’Quinn. All of these are kindred spirits in what once upon a time might have been referred to as the realm of “the avant-garde” or “experimental theatre.”
But I will always remember something Ruth Maleczech said in an interview. The musician and composer Pauline Oliveros once advised her, “Don’t describe the piece as experimental, because then people will say the experiment failed. Just call it your work.”
Don Shewey is a writer, therapist, and pleasure activist in New York City. An archive of his writing is available online at donshewey.com.
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