THE NEW YORK TIMES, December 8, 2013
by Eric Grode
“Pigs, Ants, Karma, Dogs, Love and Loss”
Lee Breuer Prepares "La Divina Caricatura"
The hallway leading into Lee Breuer’s Brooklyn Heights studio apartment isn’t particularly wide, but room has been made for an entire bookcase devoted to travel guides. On top of it is a globe studded with dozens of pushpins of different colors.
“We’ve been to 58 countries together in the last decade,” said Maude Mitchell, Mr. Breuer’s partner of 14 years and a member of Mabou Mines, the seminal theater company he helped found in 1970. Those countries get white pushpins. The other colors are for trips he or she took without the other.
This extensive travel has shown Mr. Breuer a lot of ways to make theater, as did a trip to Japan in 1968, where he first learned about bunraku puppetry. But it has also reminded him how different funding can be for artists overseas.
“All my stuff has to be done before it’s ready,” said Mr. Breuer, 77. “There’s never enough money.”
His new show, “La Divina Caricatura, a Bunraku Puppet Pop-Opera, Part I: The Shaggy Dog,” gives him a chance to have another go at more than a half dozen of his previous works — simultaneously. Running through Dec. 22 at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theater in the East Village, this sprawling tale of reincarnation and interspecies love (a co-presentation with St. Ann’s Warehouse) incorporates texts that Mr. Breuer created as far back as “Sister Suzie Cinema” in 1975.
“It sounds like a Hollywood ploy: ‘40 years in the making,’ ” Mr. Breuer said. “But, yeah, aspects of this piece were around then, so technically, I’ve been screwing with it for that long. The story keeps evolving as I evolve.”
Jessica Scott, the puppetry director on “La Divina Caricatura,” has seen a few iterations in this evolution since she began working for Mr. Breuer as a puppeteer in 2005. “In his mind, it was always part of this grand story,” Ms. Scott said. “He was only able to shine a light on one part of it at a time.”
Illuminating the entirety of Mr. Breuer’s vivid, Rabelaisian mythscape would require a transfer to a space as large as Madison Square Garden; “La Divina Caricatura” is the first piece in a planned trilogy. Notwithstanding the occasional uptown effort — the Tony Award-nominated “Gospel at Colonus,” a “Tempest” for Shakespeare in the Park — Mr. Breuer has devoted much of his (and Mabou Mines’s) energy to an endlessly running, endlessly overlapping, endlessly evolving tale of pigs, ants, karma, dogs, love and loss.
Actually, given Mr. Breuer’s penchant for puns and lowbrow humor, endlessly devolving might be more accurate. As he describes his recipe for theater, “I like to put three pounds of Hegel on one side of the scale and two pounds of Disney on the other side, and then I see if they balance.”
By far his biggest commercial success was “Colonus,” a reimagining of Sophocles’s “Oedipus at Colonus” in which a Baptist gospel choir played the Greek chorus; it transferred to Broadway in 1988 and has toured the world more or less nonstop ever since. When the playwright Richard Maxwell was studying acting at Illinois State University, he watched a recording of it in preparation for a workshop that Mr. Breuer gave at the school.
“We sat in a circle on the floor,” Mr. Maxwell recalled in a telephone interview, “and he plopped down all these magazines. There was a copy of The New York Times and a copy of Penthouse and a hip-hop magazine. And he said, ‘Pick up any piece of text in here, and we’ll start to make a theater piece out of it.’ I found that very exciting.”
The theater world has come around to Mr. Breuer’s way of thinking on at least one front. “Lee was one of the very first Westerners to use bunraku puppetry, way back in the 1970s,” Ms. Scott said, referring to the intricate form of rod-based puppets that was created in Japan in the 17th century. Since then, “War Horse” and the works of Julie Taymor and Basil Twist (a frequent collaborator with Mr. Breuer) are just a few examples of the inroads that such puppetry has made into Western theater.
And to this day, the dog Rose — who has returned as the central character in “La Divina Caricatura” — is the only puppet to win an Obie Award for performance.
Mr. Breuer said this timeless form is uniquely suited to the current moment. “If you look at all these avant-garde narratives right now, human behavior is becoming more and more mechanized,” he said, citing Mr. Maxwell, Robert Wilson and the Wooster Group as examples. “The system is causing us to become more ants in an anthill rather than humans, and they’re all saying it by restricting performance in some way.”
By contrast, he said, he is choosing to give life to inhuman objects like masks and puppets.
The puppets in “La Divina Caricatura” have plenty of life (and lives) to get through, and there are still two more parts to go. What begins as a love story between John, a filmmaker, and Rose, his dog, undergoes a complicated series of transmogrifications as each is reincarnated. This allows Mr. Breuer to revisit the title characters from such earlier Mabou Mines works as “The Warrior Ant” and “Ecco Porco,” but with the addition of Lincoln Schleifer’s wall-to-wall, genre-hopping musical score (which incorporates a bit of older material by Bob Telson and John Margolis).
Mr. Breuer estimates that only three or four festivals in the world could possibly stage the entire trilogy. “This is a life work,” he said bluntly. “I don’t know how much energy I got after this.”
Energy has been on his mind of late. His former wife, the Mabou Mines co-founder Ruth Maleczech, died in October. (Maleczech was the original Rose back in 1978 and was to play a bovine guru named Sri Moo Parahamsa at La MaMa; Karen Kandel has stepped in to play the role.) And Mr. Breuer has grappled with his own health issues in recent years.
But no matter how much ground he has covered, both literally and thematically, he maintains that you can only go as far as your imagination permits. “The whole concept of this piece is that you are where your head is,” he said. “You create where you are. Whether you’re in hell or heaven is up to you.”
THE NEW YORK TIMES, December 20, 2013
by Laura Collins-Hughes
“‘Man’s Best Friend’ Takes on a New Meaning”
“La Divina Caricatura” at La MaMa
She has floppy ears, eyes of exquisite sadness and an operatic tendency toward ecstasy, anguish and other big emotions. Leave her alone in a thunderstorm, and she may fall into despair.
She is a dog named Rose, and her Dear John letter to the man she loved is the battered heart of Lee Breuer’s dark, joyous and utterly splendid musical fantasia “La Divina Caricatura, Part 1, The Shaggy Dog,” at La MaMa, in a co-presentation with St. Ann’s Warehouse.
An East Village tale told in a subway, it’s a doomed cross-species romance inspired by “The Divine Comedy,” but Mr. Breuer uses Dante more as catalyst than template. The strongest classical link is to Japanese theater’s Bunraku.
Played on multiple stages with live actors, glorious singers and a buoyant band that shifts nimbly from doo-wop to country, gospel to cha-cha (the original music is by Lincoln Schleifer), the multimedia production is, at its core, puppet theater. Rose and John, a grizzled filmmaker in huarache sandals, are puppets, each operated by a supple, stealthy team of three.
But this is puppet theater for adventurous souls. Mabou Mines, the boundary-pushing downtown ensemble Mr. Breuer helped found four decades ago, is one of the show’s producers, but “La Divina” is not to be mistaken for “Peter and Wendy,” the company’s child-friendly hit. This is one of its more niche affairs.
A partial list of reasons it’s best not to bring the kiddies: sizable puppet penises, both human and canine; dog-puppet-on-man-puppet fellatio; puppet masturbation. This is a love story, and sex is involved.
Rose, designed by Julie Archer and voiced by Bernardine Mitchell in a virtuoso performance, veers between hell and earthly paradise in flashbacks to her life with John.
Going for a walk with him on Alison Yerxa’s revolving, multi-ringed set, Rose bounds and leaps, floating on bliss. But John, like most objects of obsession, is undeserving of adoration. In her martyrdom, Rose is nailed to a cross, her suffering an aria.
Mr. Breuer, who turns 77 in January, has been working for years on “La Divina,” the first part of a projected trilogy. Some of its ideas and characters, including Rose, and many of its artists — including Ms. Mitchell and fellow actors Karen Kandel and Maude Mitchell — have been integral to previous Breuer works.
Familiarity with this history adds texture, but it’s no more necessary to appreciate the sprawling beauty of “La Divina” than an immersion in Dante would be.
As the performance begins, a man (Paul Kandel) in a subway worker’s reflective vest addresses the audience members as if they were riders.
“If you see something unusual,” he intones in a comically sinister voice, “don’t keep it to yourself.”
“La Divina” is indeed unusual: strange, singular, perfectly self-contained and so wondrous that it may leave you in a daze. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
“La Divina Caricatura” continues through Sunday at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theater, 74A East Fourth Street, East Village; 212-475-7710, lamama.org.
THE NEW YORK TIMES, January 6, 2021
by Laura Collins-Hughes
“Lee Breuer, Adventurous Theater Director, Dies at 83”
One of the founders of Mabou Mines, he reveled in being an outsider even when his celebrated “The Gospel at Colonus” reached Broadway.
Lee Breuer, an acclaimed and influential director who over a half-century in New York’s downtown theater scene blended genres in extravagantly experimental productions, often with Mabou Mines, the avant-garde troupe he helped found, died on Sunday at his home in Brooklyn Heights. He was 83.
His wife and artistic partner, the actress Maude Mitchell, confirmed his death. He had had advanced kidney disease and metastatic lung cancer.
A tenacious outsider who refused his sole Tony Award nomination — for his biggest hit and only Broadway show, the Sophocles adaptation “The Gospel at Colonus” — Mr. Breuer flourished in the scrappier realm of Off Off Broadway even as the scale of his works and ambitions took him to larger stages, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Delacorte Theater in Central Park and the Comédie-Française in Paris.
“How much of the game do you have to play, and how much can you play against the game?” he said in a 2011 interview. “That’s an enormous question, and it’s a question that’s been part of my life, always.”
Mr. Breuer reveled in colliding the comic with the tragic, the classical with the vernacular, layering in music and Bunraku puppetry. He was widely known in recent years for “Mabou Mines DollHouse,” a recalibration of Ibsen’s classic that opened at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn and toured internationally, with a cast of average-size women opposite men no more than four and a half feet tall.
Mr. Breuer’s audiences had to be willing to embrace, or at least shrug off, some quantity of abstruseness in his productions. Yet there was often a rapturous, cacophonous beauty to them. At their best they worked on spectators like enchantments — as in “DollHouse” (2003), which he adapted with Ms. Mitchell, who played Nora; the wondrous, child-friendly “Peter and Wendy” (1996), adapted by Liza Lorwin from “Peter Pan”; and the kaleidoscopic fantasia “La Divina Caricatura, Part 1, The Shaggy Dog” (2013), which Mr. Breuer also wrote.
Reviewing “Red Beads,” a 2005 Mabou Mines production written by Polina Klimovitskaya, with wind puppetry by Basil Twist, Margo Jefferson of The New York Times called it “theater as sorcery.”
“It is a crossroads where artistic traditions meet to invent a marvelous common language,” she wrote. “It is a fairy tale, a puppet play and a chamber opera.”
Mr. Breuer founded Mabou Mines in 1970 with the actress Ruth Maleczech, the composer Philip Glass, the director JoAnne Akalaitis and the actor David Warrilow. Yet it got a less than auspicious reception that year when the Times critic Clive Barnes reviewed Mr. Breuer’s staging of “The Red Horse Animation” (text by Mr. Breuer, music by Mr. Glass) at the Guggenheim Museum.
Noting that the troupe had taken its name from a mining town in Nova Scotia, near where its members had rehearsed the piece, Mr. Barnes suggested that “they might have been more gainfully employed in mining.”
Esser Leopold Breuer was born on Feb. 6, 1937, in Philadelphia, the only child of Joseph Breuer, an architect, and Sara Leopold Breuer, a onetime newspaper columnist.
“I always wanted a brother or sister; I was always lonely,” Mr. Breuer recalled in an interview in “Getting Off: Lee Breuer on Performance,” his 2019 book with Stephen Nunns.
It didn’t help that Mr. Breuer’s family moved frequently, or that in the process he skipped a few grades, making him younger than his classmates. At 16, he enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he majored in English and began writing plays. Ms. Maleczech — whom he would marry in 1978 — was in one of them.
A charismatic globe-trotter who was always hustling for the next project, Mr. Breuer bristled at the thought of having to be, as he once put it, “a good, middle-class bourgeois fellow.” Bohemianism was more to his taste. When he and Ms. Maleczech returned to the United States in 1970 after several years in Europe, part of the lure was the ease of receiving welfare for six months while they made “The Red Horse Animation.”
He and Ms. Maleczech remained married until her death in 2013, despite a decades-long separation and his having three children with three other partners.
In New York, Mabou Mines at first had one foot in the art world. But the Off Off Broadway scene was percolating wildly, and by 1974 the company was part of A Bunch of Experimental Theaters of New York Inc., a fledgling alliance whose membership read like a roll call of downtown legends: Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater, Richard Schechner’s Performance Group, André Gregory’s Manhattan Project, Meredith Monk/The House.
The Times critic Mel Gussow soon became a champion, calling Mr. Breuer’s 1975 evening of Beckett shorts for Mabou Mines “stunningly conceived and executed.”
Unlike many of his peers, though, Mr. Breuer did not have a locked-in aesthetic. Mr. Schechner, who called him one last time on Sunday morning and told him that his work had affected millions — in the indirect, culture-nudging way that avant-garde theater can — said in an interview that Mr. Breuer’s range and curiosity made him stand out.
“I think his style was inquiry,” Mr. Schechner said. “Reason says two and two is four, and great art says, ‘Yeah, that’s the way it usually is, but two and two can be six, or three. And what happens if two and two is three, or six?’ Those are the kind of questions he asked.”
Mr. Breuer was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1985 for “The Gospel at Colonus,” with its composer, Bob Telson. (They lost to Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George.”) He won a MacArthur fellowship in 1997.
Earlier iterations of “Colonus” had won the Obie Award for best musical and been filmed for the PBS series “Great Performances.” But Frank Rich, the Times’s chief drama critic at the time, rejected the 1988 Broadway production, whose star, Morgan Freeman, he considered wasted in the show, and whose concept — Black Pentecostal choir as Greek chorus — he dismissed as “superficial, Ivy League bull-session cleverness.”
Mr. Breuer, for his part, was just about as contemptuous of Broadway.
“It was one of the worst experiences I’ve had in my life,” he told The Boston Globe in 2011. “I hate working with Broadway types. It’s just bottom line, bottom line, bottom line. You might as well be opening a gas station.”
(Mr. Rich also panned his productions of “The Tempest” (1981), “The Warrior Ant” (1988) and “Lear” (1990), a gender-reversed Shakespeare adaptation with Ms. Maleczech in the title role.)
Mr. Breuer staged a new, warmly reviewed production of “Colonus” for the Public Theater and the Onassis USA Foundation in September 2018, the summer when his long-precarious health took a further downward turn.
Days before performances began, he had a stroke during rehearsal at the Delacorte Theater that rendered him temporarily aphasic, Ms. Mitchell recalled in an interview on Monday.
“He gave the woman playing Antigone a piece of direction, and it was gobbledygook,” she said. “And then he wouldn’t leave, because he had an idea that he wanted to spend some time on.”
Even frail, he kept making art. In September, he and Ms. Mitchell went to Georgia to rework a Horton Foote piece about a dying woman, which he framed with music played by Egyptian gods. On Dec. 17, as he struggled with kidney disease and cancer, Mr. Breuer made his last revision to “The Fifth Voyage,” a riff on Jonathan Swift that he’d been writing.
In between, Ms. Mitchell said, he signed a contract to sell his archives to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale.
Ms. Mitchell and Mr. Breuer met in 1999 at Sundance Theater Lab and became partners; they married in 2015. In addition to her, he is survived by his daughter, Clove Galilee; his sons, Lute Ramblin Breuer, Alexander Tiappa Klimovitsky, Mojo Lorwin and Wah Mohn; and three grandchildren.
All of Mr. Breuer’s children grew up to be artists. Like their mothers — Ms. Maleczech, Ms. Klimovitskaya, Ms. Lorwin and Leslie Mohn, who died in 2007 — all have collaborated with him.
And in recent weeks, Ms. Mitchell said, the children gathered around, enveloping their father in dance and song.