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Book Review

La Divina Caricatura

by Lee Breuer 

THE NEW YORK TIMES, January 6, 2021

Reviewed 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.

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