Breuer, Lee 1937-
BREUER, Lee 1937-
PERSONAL: Born Asher Leopold, February 6, 1937, in Philadelphia, PA; son of Joseph B. (an architect) and Sara (a designer; maiden name, Leopold) Breuer; married Ruth Maleczech (an actress and director), July 27, 1978; children: Clove Galilee, Lute Ramblin'. Education: University of California, Los Angeles, B.A., 1958; attended San Francisco State University; studied works of Berliner Ensemble and Growtowski, 1965-70.
ADDRESSES: Home—92 St. Marks Pl., No. 3, New York, NY 10009. Office—Mabou Mines, 150 1st Ave., New York, NY 10009-5782. Agent—Lynn Davis, Davis-Cohen Associates, 513A Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10011.
CAREER: San Francisco Actors' Workshop, San Francisco, CA, director, 1963-65, directing credits include The House of Bernarda Alba, 1963; director of plays in Europe, 1965-70, including Mother Courage, produced in Paris, 1967, The Messingkauf Dialogues, produced at Edinburgh Festival, 1968, and Play, produced in Paris and New York, 1969 and 1970; Mabou Mines, New York, NY, founding director, author, adaptor, producer, performer, 1970—; directing credits include Red Horse Animation, 1970 and 1972, B-Beaver Animation, 1974, Mabou Mines Performs Samuel Beckett, 1975, Shaggy Dog Animation, 1978, A Prelude to Death in Venice, 1980, and Hajj, 1982. Also director and choreographer of The Saint and the Football Players, produced at American Dance Festival, summer, 1976, director of Lulu, produced for American Repertory Theatre at Harvard University, 1980, and director of The Tempest, produced at New York Shakespeare Festival, 1981; director of Animal Magnetism, 2000, and Peter and Wendy, 2002, with Mabou Mines theater company. Director with New York Shakespeare Festival, 1982—; co-artistic director of Re.Cher.Chez., a studio for the avant-garde performing arts. Member of faculties of Yale Drama School, 1978-80, Harvard Extension, 1981-82, and New York University, 1981-82, and Stanford University. Lecturer at universities and colleges, including various campuses of University of California, and at art centers. Member of board of directors of Theatre Communications Group, 1979-81; panel member of National Endowment for the Arts and Inter-Art.
MEMBER: PEN, Dramatists Guild.
AWARDS, HONORS: Obie Award from Village Voice for best play, 1978, for Shaggy Dog Animation, and for writing and directing, 1980, for A Prelude to Death in Venice; fellowships from Creative Artists Public Service Program, 1980, Guggenheim Foundation, 1980, National Endowment for the Arts, 1980 and 1982, and Rockefeller Foundation, 1981 and 1986; international exchange fellow to Japan, National Endowment for the Arts, 1983; ASCAP Popular Music Award and Obie Award for Best Musical, both 1984, both for The Gospel at Colonus; Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award, 1986; Tony Award, 1988; Nominee for the Antoinette Perry Award for book of a musical, 1988, for The Gospel at Colonus; grants from the American Express/Kennedy Center's Fund for New American Plays grant, 1995, and McKnight Foundation; MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, 1997; Jim Henson Puppetry Award; Peter and Wendy won six Obie Awards.
la caricatura divina play cycle
The Warrior Ant, music by Bob Telson, produced in New Haven, CT, and New York, NY, 1988.
An Epidog produced in New York, NY, 1996.
Ecco Porco produced at PS 122 in New York, NY, 2002.
plays, except as noted
The Saint and the Football Players, produced in New York, NY, 1976.
(Adaptor) Samuel Beckett, The Lost Ones, first produced in New York, NY, at Theatre for the New City, February 7, 1976, produced in Los Angeles, CA, at Mark Taper Theatre Forum, March 7, 1979.
Animations: A Trilogy for Mabou Mines (animation scripts; contains Red Horse Animation, first produced in New York, NY, at Guggenheim Museum, November, 1970; revised version produced in New York, NY, at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, March, 1972; B-Beaver Animation, first produced in New York, NY, at Whitney Museum of American Art, 1974; produced at Public Theatre, New York, NY, March, 1977; Shaggy Dog Animation, first produced at Public Theatre, New York, NY, February, 1978), edited by Bonnie Marranca and Guatam Dasgupta, Performing Arts Journal Publications (New York, NY), 1979; Red Horse Animation also published in The Theatre of Images, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1996.
A Prelude to Death in Venice (a portion of Shaggy Dog Animation, first produced at Public Theatre, New York, NY, May 18, 1980), published in New Plays U.S.A. No. 1, edited by James Leverett, Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 1982.
Sister Suzie Cinema: The Collected Poems and Performances, 1976-1986 (produced as Sister Suzie Cinema, music by Bob Telson; first produced at Public Theatre, New York, NY, June, 1980), Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 1987.
(And author of lyrics) Gospel at Colonus, music by Bob Telson, adaptation of Sophocles's Oedipus at Colonus as translated by Robert Fitzgerald (produced in Edinburgh, Scotland, and London, England, 1982, and Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, NY, November, 1983), Theatre Communications Group (New York, NY), 1989.
Hajj (a performance poem; first produced in 1982), Performing Arts Journal Publications (New York, NY), 1983.
Lear (based on Shakespeare's King Lear), produced in New York, NY, 1990.
The Quantum, 1991.
The MahabharANTa, 1992.
The Warrior Ant: Poems, Vincent Fitz Gerald & Company (New York, NY), 1992.
(Author of lyrics) An Ant Alone: Songs from the Warrior Ant (recording, music by Bob Telson), Gramavision, 1993.
Red Beads, produced at Red Eye Theatre, Minneapolis, MN, 1999.
La Divina Caricatura: A Fiction, Green Integer Press (Los Angeles, CA), 2002.
Mabou Mines Dollhouse (adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, with elements of Ibsen's The Vikings of Helgaland), produced at St. Ann's Warehouse, New York, NY, 2003.
Lyricist. Director of Peter and Wendy, adapted for puppets by Liza Lorwin, based on J. M. Barrie's novel Peter Pan, produced in 1996. Contributor of articles to periodicals, including Village Voice and Soho Weekly News.
SIDELIGHTS: As a writer and director interested in innovations in the performing arts, Lee Breuer works with a troupe, which was originally part of the La Mama Experimental Theatre Company and is now an independent artistic collaborative. Mabou Mines, named after the Canadian mining community where the troupe rehearsed in 1970, presents productions that expand visual performances, adding another dimension to artistic experience. The group, "one of our most valuable experimental companies" in the eyes of New York Times critic Mel Gussow, "is explorative—extending the possibilities of theater into the visual arts." Juggling language and nonverbal imagery in a visual environment, Breuer concentrates on original writings and adaptations suitable for the "total theatre" of the Mabou Mines. This enhanced theatrical experience might include the use of video projections, sound effects, music, dance, and life-size Japanese puppets. An important hallmark of Breuer's theater is the virtuosity of his language, which abounds in shades of meaning through puns, double-entendre, and denotation cum connotation. As New York Times critic Don Shewey explained, "The company is distinguished for its sheer longevity as a continuously collaborative ensemble and its interdisciplinary working process, in which theater artists engage actively with guest composers, visual artists and technology designers."
Writing in Contemporary Dramatists, Bill Coco described Breuer's approach to writing for the stage: "The greater part of Breuer's dramatic writing is structured in the form of a labyrinthine monologue that he then 'animates' in a richly physicalized stage setting and performance. The monologues telescope many identities into a single voice that in turn splices together fragments of many linguistic worlds…. Through juxtaposition he develops a complex mode of irony, dominated by a sophisticated use of punning. This artistic strategy allows the poem and its speakers to subvert the efficacy of the expressive language of emotion without denying the reality of the emotion itself."
Breuer's first stage work, Red Horse Animation, sets out to construct an image. In fact, his use of the term animation in his titles is very deliberate for it means both bringing characters to life (and to cartoons) and connotes the soul, or animus in Latin. "This attempt at ritualistic theatre, bold and bald in its nameless imagery, had the sovereign merit of aspiration," noted Clive Barnes in a New York Times review. Following Red Horse, B-Beaver Animation is a stream of consciousness presentation of sea images and marine life. The stage of this production literally unfolds with the aquatic narrative. "The focus is the set," Gussow observed in another review, "an assemblage of boards, planks, poles and fabric" that transforms itself from a stage to the sea to a boat. "The work has a compulsive fascination," the critic wrote. "The words waft over us," he explained, "but the pictures are like optical illusions." Two actors, for instance, intertwine to create a giant crawling creature. Or, as one actor peers into a pail, the audience sees that it contains two amputated human feet submerged in water.
Like the set for B-Beaver Animation, the stage of Shaggy Dog Animation changes, too, from a cloud to a house to a cracked kitchen floor. A study of devotion, this work is a mechanized, acoustical "cascade of imagery" that parodies modern culture, including romance, through canine motifs. It "is a devious and difficult piece of theater," Gussow remarked, "which is as tantalizing as it is obfuscating." Commenting on Breuer, the critic noted that "he is a born punster, and not one double entendre about dogs escapes him. His cleverness with words is amply demonstrated in a long-winded comic monologue about the art world—an artist's hectic search for public and private support that ends with the discovery of a 'patron in a peartree.'"
Another Breuer production, A Prelude to Death in Venice, which comprises a portion of the Shaggy Dog Animation, is, according to Michael Feingold of the Village Voice, "a violent shock—a triumph at the end of a long, dismal year in which the theatre has for the most part lacked not only glory but even mere competence and reason, a lush tropical plant rising unexpectedly out of a barren industrial waste." Loosely related to Thomas Mann's work of the same name, Prelude is the story of John, a large Bunraku puppet, plagued by the neuroses and obsessions of the modern spiritual crisis identified as contemporary life. Poised between two touch-tone pay telephones, John talks to his girlfriends, answering machines, his mother; at one point he punches out Bach's G Major Prelude and Fugue on the phones. The most critical props, "the phones," said Gerald Rabkin in the New Statesman, "become … [John's] hope, his succor, his escape, even his art." In the work, Breuer attempts "to tickle and then to startle," Feingold explained, "to resume tickling when the shock has worn off and then, suddenly jam an emotional knife in the very ribs that are being tickled." The author, on the other hand, contends that Prelude, wants "permission to subjectivise," thereby allowing ordinary theatrical productions to "wait for poetry." With Prelude, Breuer's trademark facility with language became even more apparent. In Feingold's view, "Breuer's brilliant gift for compressing it all into the life of one rattled, driven, assertive and terrified 'dummy' is poured into some of the richest language ever heard onstage in this country—not rich in the sense of conventional poetry, decorated in careful old images and trips to the dictionary for two-dollar words, but rich in its awareness of the living language that we speak, its flexibility, its multiple meanings and unconscious intents."
Like his own productions, the works Breuer stages and directs are innovative and experimental. Among these are Shakespeare's Tempest, a comedy that met with critical trepidation because of its avant-garde rendition, and Lear, based on Shakespeare's tragedy King Lear. "Breuer's work on The Tempest," commented Robert Brustein in New Republic, "is an honest effort to create a Shakespeare for our time." Although Brustein mentioned some reservations about Breuer's staging (that it "escapes classification," for one), he "came away from the production feeling rather exhilarated." And, despite the theatrical gadgetry and free interpretation, Breuer's Tempest, Jack Kroll commented in Newsweek, captures Shakespeare's idea of a reconciliation involving "the great globe itself," regardless of man-made imperialisms. Beneath all the hoopla, Kroll wrote, "there's a loving grasp of this play that's Shakespeare's final covenant with an intractable world." Breuer returned to Shakespeare in 1999 when he staged his own version of the Bard's King Lear.
In 1988 Breuer produced the musical The Warrior Ant, an installment of what he considered to be his magnum opus, "La Divina Caricatura." "I'm going to be working for the rest of my life on a trilogy called 'La Divina Caricatura,'" Breuer told Shewey. "It's a loose sendup of Dante, with an Inferno, a Purgatorio and a Paradisio. But instead of being sequential, they are intercut. And the main characters each have their own realm—the dog is in hell, the pig is in purgatory and the ant … is in heaven," he continued. In Warrior Ant, a massive production that involved more than one hundred puppeteers, dancers, singers, and musicians, an ant journeys in search of the meaning of life. As Breuer told Village Voice editor Ross Wetzsteon, the work was his "attempt to write a large epic work that'll hold up as literature as well as theater." While Breuer noted that the play's antecedents lie in such classical works as The Aeneid, The Inferno, and Journey to the West, he also admitted that he himself is the ant. "I wanna know more why I wanna stay alive."
Before it became popular to draw from many musical traditions, Breuer looked outward for inspiration. Thus The Warrior Ant involves a far-ranging diversity of music from different cultures, including those of Africa, the Caribbean, Japan, China, the Middle East, and pre-colonial North America. Even more important to Breuer's oeuvre turned out to be his use of bunraku puppets, which he had first encountered in Paris two decades earlier. These stick-manipulated puppets originated in Japan during the 1600s and traditionally require three puppeteers to manipulate a single figure. Breuer remarked to Eileen Blumenthal of the New York Times that the bunraku "was the most brilliant theatre I'd ever seen—and still is." He incorporated them into The Warrior Ant and later works in pivotal roles.
By 1996 Breuer had added An Epidog to "La Divina Caricatura." According to Chris Hansen in American Theatre, An Epidog is "the after-death account of a dog's life told through bunraku puppetry." An Epidog was performed by Mabou Mines in conjunction with a revival of Breuer's Red Horse Animation, the two plays exploring new territory by combining such technologies as video-conferencing and a World Wide Web hook-up to create a live-action performance which was also viewed and interacted with by people from all over the world. Some videotaped actions by live actors were animated and broadcast during the live performance of the play, while a director was able to change and manipulate the virtual stage backgrounds broadcast over the Web. The result, Haines noted, "approached the actor/audience configuration in startling ways."
The four-hour Ecco Porco, a title that echoes nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's treatise Ecco Homo, is Breuer's 2002 installment to La Divina Caricatura. The action is set in a drama therapy workshop where animal and human characters come to solve their psychological and emotion problems. Among the workshop attendees are the central bunraku puppet characters Gonzo Porco, Ph.D., who is a pig-artist, and Rose the Dog, who attempts to overcome an obsessive sexual relationship with someone named John. These two characters have monologues and are the stars of scenes that "reference a dizzying array of cultural and philosophical icons, giving the impression that Mr. Breuer wants to write a play about Everything," wrote Frank Episale at Offoffoff.com. Among the many topics touched upon and references made include those to Dante's Divine Comedy, German philosophy, tantric sex, the trial of Russian stage director V. S. Meyerhold, Orson Welles, and Marge Simpson. Culture Vulture reviewer Roy Sorels wrote, "There is certainly plenty to look at and listen to, but little of it makes sense in the moment. Words pour out … that seem to mean something as they are being spoken passionately … but melt away in the mind like bitter cotton candy before there is any kind of meaning that could be summarized." Although Episale described Ecco Porco "at its best" as "an intellectual carnival, encompassing camp, philosophy, politics and spectacle, weaving them together until they are difficult to separate or distinguish from one another," he concluded that even Breuer needs an editor once in awhile because Ecco Porco is "alternately exciting and tedious, with flashes of undeniable brilliance interrupted by long stretches of self-indulgence and pretension."
Although a number of reviewers noted the excessive length of Ecco Porco, others appreciated portions of the work. "That a piece so heavy in its topics should be so light in its spirit is the essence of Breuer's approach," commented Feingold; "the jumble of elements is how he gets away with it." Shewey explained the reference to Nietzsche by citing the subtitle of Ecco Homo, that is How One Becomes What One Is. Thus Breuer's protagonists, with Gonzo Porco, Ph.D. created in the playwright's own image, explore their identities. In Porco-as-Breuer's case, it is the role of Art Martyr. "It's a look at myself. What is my motivation for attempting to push the envelope at times? Why do I risk social disapproval. Why do I clearly attempt to defeat myself? Would I rather take the suffering than the success?," Breuer told Shewey. WPKN's Isa Goldberg found that even though the work becomes self-indulgent, it is "actively addictive." Feingold tried to catch the work's essence by likening Breuer's theatrical world to "a funhouse mirror that reaches out to tap you on the shoulder." It "neither represents nor parallels ours; it's interactive with us," he concluded.
While in residence at the Red Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Breuer teamed up with puppetmaster Basil Twist and Japanese composer and music director Ushio Torikai to create the opera The Red Beads. The work is based on a Siberian folktale about which Breuer first published a poem in his 1987 collection of plays prose and poetry, Sister Suzie Cinema. The story revolves around a girl who, upon turning thirteen years old, is to receive her mother's red beads. Little does she know, however, that in this Gothic tale the dying mother is a witch who will strangle her daughter and take over her body. Although the story is set in New England during the turn of the nineteenth century and exudes a mysterious "Halloween" ambiance, the opera got an Eastern influence when Torikai, came on board. As Breuer explained to Mike Steele of the Star Tribune, "It's all … taken a tour through the East since I hooked up with Ushio. She's sort of a Japanese combination of Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass. I go where she goes." One destination was in the staging, which uses aerial acrobatics and yards of white silk billowing in the wind. According to New Republic writer Robert Brustein, who reviewed the work in progress in 1999, Breuer and Twist "devised some truly stunning aerial calisthenics" in this fable that "pulses with ominous auguries, like Schubert's 'Erlkonig,' and familial reverberations, like the Grimms' 'Juniper Tree.'"
Steele noted that "Breuer shows little sign of slowing down. He's still a bopster from the Beat era who talks about 'jiving the audience.' He's still a pop classicist, a hustler guru, an artist whose imagination leaps at every new stimulation."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Cody, Gabriella, interview with Lee Breuer, in Inter-culturalism and Performance, edited by Bonnie Marranca, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1999, pp. 452-458.
Contemporary Dramatists, 5th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1993.
American Film, January-February, 1983.
American Theatre, January, 1996, Chris Hansen, "Mabou Mines Lives on in Cyberspace," p. 64; January, 2002, Benjamin W. Sampson, "Pigs in Rehab," p. 124; November, 2002, Iris Smith Fischer, "Wild Dogs: Lee Breuer's New Book of Fiction Runs with the Pack of Literary Avant-Gardists," pp. 71-74.
Bomb, summer, 1996, Michael Goldbert, "Lee Breuer," pp. 24-29.
Nation, August 8, 1981; May 19, 1997, p. 34.
New Republic, August 22-29, 1981; September 23, 2002, Robert Brustein, "On Theater—A Boon for the Boonies," p. 30.
New Statesman, August 1, 1980, Gerald Rabkin, review of A Prelude to Death.
Newsweek, July 20, 1981, Jack Kroll, review of Tempest.
New York, July 20, 1981.
New York Times, November 25, 1963, November 20, 1970, March 25, 1977, February 8, 1978, May 19, 1980, May 20, 1980; January 13, 2002, Don Shewey, "Sacrifice Goes with the Territory at Mabou Mines," review of "Ecco Porco," p. AR5; January 16, 2002, Bruce Weber, "Sniffing Out Meaning," review of "Ecco Porco," p. E7.
Performing Arts Journal, 1989, Gabrielle Cody, "Lee Breuer on Interculturalism," pp. 59-66.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), July 5, 1999, Mike Steele, "Still Wild," review of Red Beads.
Theatre, spring, 1987, Ellen Levy, "Inspiration in Its Roots: The Place of Poetry in the Theater of Lee Breuer," pp. 66-68.
Theatre Topics, March, 1997, Alicia Kae Koger, "Dramaturgical Criticism: A Case Study of The Gospel at Colonus," pp. 23-35, Iris L. Smith, "The 'Intercultural' Work of Lee Breuer," pp. 37-58.
Time, July 20, 1981.
Variety, July 15, 1981.
Village Voice, May 26, 1980; May 19, 1987, Ross Wetzsteon, review of The Warrior Ant, p. 19; May 26, 1987, p. 33; January, 1996, p. 68; January 23, 2002, Michael Feingold, "Dogged and Castled," review of Ecco Porco.
Culture Vulture Web site, http://www.culturevulture.net/ (September 7, 2003), Roy Sorrels, review of Ecco Porco.
Mabou Mines Web site, http://www.maboumines.org/ (April 17, 2003), author profile.
Offoffoff.com, http://www.offoffoff.com/ (September 7, 2003), Frank Episale, "Behold the Man," review of Ecco Porco.
Red Beads Web site, http://www.redbeads.info/bios.html/ (September 7, 2003), author profile.
WPKN, http://www.wpkn.org/ (September 7, 2003), Isa Goldberg, review of Ecco Porco.*