Hunkering down with Mabou Mines.
"There's no net."
"No shoes either."
Mabou Mines, the collective these days composed of Lee Breuer, Ruth Maleczech, Fred Neumann and Terry O'Reilly, communicates antiphonally, not individually. They commandeer each other's ideas, finish each other's sentences. The other members of the original company - including JoAnne Akalaitis, now at the helm of the New York Shakespeare Festival, and busy character actor Bill Raymond - have gone. But Mabou Mines continues, the very name charged with spiritual energy for thousands of theatre people who've never or rarely seen the company's work, the very name symbolic of imagination, experiment, integrity, the holy mission of the stage. Listen to them talk.
"For 20 years we didn't worry about real estate. We were concerned with what's on tonight, finding a new audience for every new piece."
"But during the same period we got dependent."
"Not just us, progressive art in general."
"We've been operating -"
"- conned -"
"- by corporations. All that's gone."
"As far as that's concerned, you can just shut the door and go home."
The seeds of Mabou Mines were sown on the West Coast and bore their first fruits in Europe, but the body of work that has earned the group its place in theatre history is so much part and parcel of a single place and time - downtown Manhattan in the 1970s - that both the work and the people who create it have always seemed displaced when encountered anywhere else. In a portable shed behind an air-conditioned postmodern mall of a community college in a sunbaked, cactus-studded Arizona suburb, Breuer, Maleczech, Neumann and O'Reilly have something of the air of refugees from another psychic planet. Even here they're talking about Manhattan.
"What we're doing is turning our rehearsal space into a place to perform."
"We've performed there before."
"We had to clear it out to make room."
"Because it's tiny."
"Like the audience in the '90s."
"So what the hell."
"We've made a floor in the studio."
"We've got an Uberplan: the |Suite Dreams Studio Conversion Campaign.'"
"No more, |We need $100,000 to get started.'"
"One thing at a time. We get $1,000, we fix the floor; $4,500, we make a grid."
The occasion of their visit to the, University of Arizona's Phoenix campus (where Breuer has been appointed to a visiting lectureship) is a workshop with advanced theatre students. This September afternoon, the workshop consists of a partial run-through of one section from the company's latest work-in-progress: Mignon's death...on the White House lawn under the heel of operative H. Honkley Huntley, a footnote or sidebar to The MahabharANTa, with selected strophes from The Insectiad, Part VII-C of The Warrior Ant, written and directed by Breuer.
Despite the inflated title, the project under development (which was on view at Richard Foreman's Ontological Hysteric Theater in New York City this past November) is a winningly modest piece of work, having little in common with the technological grandiosities of late '80s Breuer work like The Warrior Ant proper, Sister Suzie Cinema, or even The Gospel at Colonus.
The new work, running under an hour, is built around the talents of Balinese shadow puppeteer I Wayan Wija, with Maleczech and Neumann as performer/narrators, and O'Reilly as assistant puppeteer. In text and tone, it's strongly reminiscent of Breuer's early works-like B. Beaver Animation of 20 years ago. A kind of Aesopian animalfable for the tragically hip, its text is a ripe mulch of show-biz and media injokes, and outtakes from 2,000 years of Western and Eastern theatre - from Dido's death in the Aeniad to Luise Rainer's telephone scene from The Great Ziegfeld.
"In the past if we had a hit, there was no way to keep it going."
"Now, hopefully, if The Bribe is a hit at St. Mark's, we can move it back |home' and keep it running."
"Have something going all the time."
"The Mabou Mines Suite."
"In Arizona, the company has the air of refugees from another psychic planet."
Oh yes, The Bribe. Breuer's ant-opera shared the stage at St. Mark's in New York with this hour-long Terry O'Reilly two-hander, a work of a totally different character once described by O'Reilly as a vaudeville "about a spiritual freeloader making all the wrong moves." The piece, directed by Maleczech, draws on a typically rich mix of collaborative artists, with a taped score by downtown performer-composer John Zorn, a galvanized-steel washtub setting by sculptor Richard Nonas, and Charles Ludlam superstar Black-eyed Susan as co-performer alongside the author.
"Fred's working on a piece about making a movie called Reel to Real, cast of 24, cameras, projections - "
"So we also want to work elsewhere"
"And with other producers."
"What else are we doing?"
"Mother Lode - "
"That's a new piece with a text by an African American poet, Patricia Jones -"
"Reacting to Gorky's Mother, with Ruth and Penny Arcade, and music by Carter Burwell, who scored the Coen Brothers's movies, and set by Paul Clay and directed by John McGrath -"
"Maybe a revival of Lulu - "
"Like, Lee's working on a piece based on J.M. Barrie's Peter and Wendy -"
"Not the play, the novel -"
"- with a text by Liza Lorwin and set and lights by Julie Archer."
"Both of them worked with Lee on Gospel -"
" - with shadow puppets and Bunraku puppets and glove puppets and a kind of pop-up storybook look."
" - and a folk-rock score based on Scottish traditional music by Johnny Cunningham -"
"Barrie was Scottish."
As a company, Mabou Mines has always trusted in the kindness of strangers to provide performance venues. In the early New York years, the role was played by La Mama's Ellen Stewart; later on Joseph Papp provided a roof for the company's head. The increasingly dismal funding climate for progressive art has forced the company to reconsider its situation. But the longer one listens to Mabou Mines's plans, the clearer it becomes that the current climate of economic and ideological adversity has, if anything, provoked the company to more vigorous effort.
"We're very stubborn and pissed."
"We're bunkering down and getting tough."
"We're getting just a little huffy."
"Hunkering in a bunker."