Ruth Maleczech Gender Bends Shakespeare

by Ross Wetzsteon for the Village Voice, January 30, 1990

copyright C 1990 V.V. Publishing Corporation/Reprinted by permission of the Village Voice


Ruth Maleczech is every inch a queen.

For three years, she’s listened with regal patience while Lee Breuer – Mabou Mines auteur terrible with whom she’s worked for 30 years and with whom she’s raised two children – has developed, discarded, expanded, and expounded the "conceptual agenda" of his radically reenvisioned, gender-reversed version of King Lear. Called simply Lear, the production finally opens for the critics this week with Maleczech as Lear herself. "This isn’t just a culturally validated interpretation like Bernhardt playing Hamlet," Breuer explains. "Ruth’s not an actress playing a male role. Lear’s now a woman with three sons." Furthermore, "in order to establish a context in which this is psychologically plausible," the setting has been moved to the American South in the 1950s; "I kinda like to try to illuminate one archetype in terms of another," Breuer says. There’s more – hours more: the Americanization of classic texts, the divine right of money, the similarity of Elizabethan and Ozark accents, all expressed in Breuer’s inebriated-with-ideas, torrent-of-consciousness style – now "gender as culture," now "cultural time warps," now "working the dialectic." "Anyway, that’s my take on the text," Breuer says, winding down at last. "Ruth may have a different one."

"Me?" says Maleczech, with her matronly laugh. "All I ever wanted was just the chance to say Shakespeare’s words."

Though she’s the only actress to win the Zeisler Award for extraordinary achievement in the nonprofit theater, and one of only four recipients of the NEA’s 1989 Distinguished Artist Fellowships in Theater (along with Joe Chaikin, Richard Foreman, and Ming Cho Lee), Maleczech is virtually unknown to most of the critics in the country’s putative drama center and,

in fact, only got her Equity card last fall in order to appear in Genet’s The Screens at the Guthrie in Minneapolis. "I just don’t know how these things work," she says in a kind of sly bemusement, her plump hands trying in vain to shape the reddish hair heaped on top of her head.

Indeed, it’s sometimes difficult to detect the tart intelligence and shrewd sensibility behind her radiantly rumpled smile, especially when she says, as she often does, that she doesn’t even consider herself a very talented actress. In a way, she’s right – at least in the sense that she’s never really learned, and never really needed, the kind of conventional "skills" that go into "creating roles." But the difference between acting and performing so crucial to the Mabou Mines aesthetic – between traditional techniques of naturalistic impersonation and simultaneity of character/performer – has never been better exemplified than in Maleczech’s moral majesty as Madame Curie in Dead End Kids, or her father-haunted daughter in Hajj, or her naïvely cunning, brutally lovestruck butcher in Through the Leaves, uncannily finding eloquence even in the inarticulate. And though Lear will certainly be savaged by the uptown critics, who honor experimentation only in the abstract, Maleczech’s heartbreaking performance – moving in a moment from imperiousness to infirmity, from defiance to entreaty, from wisdom to lunacy – will surely confirm her standing as one of the transcendent performers in America today.

BREUER HAS THIS THEORY – he has a theory about everything – that Maleczech’s interest in playing Lear has a lot to do with recently turning 50. "When you start seeing the end of the line," he says, "you start thinking about doing the big stuff. You finally understand you’re only fully realized if you capture the tragic muse."

"Oh honestly," says Maleczech in fond exasperation, "sometimes Lee’s so silly. I’ve wanted to do Lear for 10 years at least. I’m not drawn to roles usually, but I was drawn to Lear’s language. And I couldn’t figure out any reason why a woman couldn’t say those words as a woman."

There was no epiphany, no moment when the fantasy suddenly blossomed into an idea, but three-and-a-half years ago Maleczech and Breuer started talking about giving it a try. Their first decision – to reverse all the genders but otherwise to alter only the names and pronouns and references to sexuality and royalty – came almost immediately, and to astonishing effect. "When a man has power," says Maleczech, recalling her amazement the first time she read through the revised script, "we take it for granted. But when a woman has power, we’re forced to look at the nature of power itself."

All the other changes evolved slowly, over a period of months and even years, for at the heart of Breuer’s working method is a paradox: while he always seems to have 18 projects going at once – thriving on chaos, throwing off a dozen ideas a minute – his best work actually grows by accretion, through seemingly endless workshopping, through the kind of patience and perseverence, trust and collaboration, trial and whopping error and more trial, that only an ensemble can support. As Maleczech puts it, "Lee works in pieces. He doesn’t really think well about more than one thing at a time, not until the very end."

Their first workshop, on a Rockefeller grant at Atlanta’s Theatrical Outfit in September 1987, convinced them to update the setting to Georgia in the ‘50s – to accommodate Breuer’s obsession with "American analogues," to make a matriarchal society more plausible, and to explore a notion Breuer and Maleczech first ran across in the PBS documentary, The Story of English. "Apparently, early English settlers brought the Elizabethan accent to Jamestown, Roanoke, and the Carolinas," says Maleczech, "and it dispersed into the mountains of the South, where it’s still alive. That’s the accent we started working with down in Atlanta, not the round, smooth accents of the Southern upper class, but the twangy accent of the back country." "It was a kind of cultural diaspora," adds Breuer. "We’re so used to Shakespeare in an Oxbridge accent that it comes as quite a shock to realize that in his own time he actually sounded a lot closer to Homer and Jethro."

In Atlanta, Maleczech recalls, they realized that not all the shifts could be successfully sustained. But most of their transplants immediately took – changing the knights to dogs, for instance, or seeing the social structure as based on clans – and they came to feel that with the revelations they were uncovering regarding the relationships among gender, violence, love, and power, it wasn’t absolutely necessary, in Breuer’s words, "to lock it in beat for beat."

Back up North, the cast prepared for its second stop, the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. Reported the Voice’s Alisa Solomon, serving as the production’s dramaturg: "Onstage, the modern analogies start to take on life, and the gender switches – which you can almost forget watching rehearsals day after days – suddenly become potent again. Lear’s curse against Goneril sounds strangely new when it’s a mother denouncing her son." And Breuer continued to sound like a cross between a Bronx bartender and an editor of October magazine: "‘You’re like a runner caught between third base and home,’ he tells Ruth one day when he blocks her scene-one fury so that she’s stuck in the middle between banished Kent and rejected Cordelion. ‘Diagonals construct a semiotics of paranoia.’"

Though they presented only selected scenes, New Brunswick proved the most tumultuous stop on their long journey to New York. "It was our first experience before a hostile audience," says Maleczech. "Their subscribers felt insulted. They hated it. I think they wanted nobility, but King Lear is a mean, dirty, angry play." One of the most widely believed legends trailing in the wake of Lear has it that the managing director, artistic director, and publicist of the George Street Playhouse were all fired for the fiasco, though according to present management all three left for entirely different reasons. In any case, the bulk of the New Brunswick audiences fled at intermission, which bothers Maleczech far more than bad reviews. "We’re performing for audiences," she insists, "not for critics." But isn’t that partly a defense mechanism? Surely she knows, based on Mabou’s experience, that the city’s middlebrow critics are lying in ambush, just waiting to come out with supercilious reviews that will find a permanent place in anthologies of invective. Maleczech smiles – her secret smile, the da Vinci smile – not conveying mirth as much as a kind of quietly amused invulnerability. "Oh yes," she says, "we’ll get bad reviews, and they’ll hurt for a moment, but if you start believing the bad reviews you’ll start believing the good ones too – and that way madness lies."

In the summer of ’88, a residency at the Theater Institute at Storm King in upstate New York enabled them to add more scenes and further refine the work, particularly a complex technical system called sound imagining. "It’s like an audio closeup,"explains Maleczech. "The actors are miked, yet their voices seem to come from them rather than from the speakers." Still another residency followed in March ’89, at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, where Breuer started talking about a turntable, upping the projected budget by over $100,000 in the process. He was adamant about that turntable – it suddenly seemed as crucial as the text – and it also suddenly seemed that a Maleczech Lear was about as likely as one by Brando.

For all the while the piece was taking shape – complicated by the use of several non-Mabou actors, including Ron Vawter (Regan) and Isabell Monk (Gloucester), who couldn’t always adhere to the company’s frantically leisurely schedule – Breuer was scrambling to find a producer, or at least come up with funding for a Mabou Mines production. Joe Papp was committed to his own Shakespeare project. Brooklyn Academy’s Harvey Lichtenstein offered them the Majestic but felt that the project was too speculative to finance. The resident theaters? Maybe next time. "I’ve got the wrong kind of track record," says Breuer with a shrug. "I’m known for large expensive shows that take a long time to get on, and let’s face it, that’s not entirely untrue. So I’m bad news in a lot of places. But when they start saying I’m the guy who’s going to throw fits and go broke, the guy who’s going to produce a solid gold garbage pail, that’s not true. It’s been very discouraging. The entire art world has turned conservative – it’s moved just far enough to the right to clip off most of our options. We may not even have an avant-garde for the next 10 or 15 years. This is probably the last large-scale piece I’ll ever do. Then I’ll escape with what’s left of the rest of my life."

Breuer’s been talking matter-of-factly, but for a month or two last summer he seemed uncharacteristically despondent. He even confided to friends that he was thinking of calling it quits in New York, heading out to L.A., lining up some well-paying TV and movie work after years of begging and scrounging in the experimental theater scene. No one ever seemed more depressed at the prospect of striking it rich. Yet few of his friends really believed him – the idea of Lee at lunch in some lounge in Beverly Hills was ludicrous.

But on the eve of the opening, some key grants have come through (especially from AT&T), L.A.’s, on hold, and even though the turntable’s been quietly forgotten, the sets, lights, and sound system aren’t quite what he’d wanted, and many members of the cast feel more exhausted than exhilarated – three years have taken their toll – Breuer’s in a state of tensely controlled euphoria. "Mabou may lose its little undershirt," he says, "but I also think we have a chance of being really good – or at least a different kind of good. Whatever else I might want, conceptually it’s all there. On the accent and updating, we’re treading a fine line between sounding like Mammy Yokum and Faulkner – if it comes out sounding like Hee Haw rather than the Snopes family, we’re lost. On the gender reversals, everything’s fallen perfectly into place. I even think we’ve found a way to degenderize literature, to make the depth and complexity of behavior in Shakespeare available to actresses as well as actors."

Breuer talks as if no reflection or judgment intervenes between a thought and its expression. As a result, his conversation tumbles out with no distinction between cockamamy speculation and reasoned analysis, his tone varying from apocalyptic deadpan to exuberant irrelevance, leaving his listeners to sort out the brilliant from the bullshit. (At one of the last rehearsals at the BMCC Triplex Theater, he calls out to two of the actors, "Don’t overdo it!" – this caution coming from the director who’s working on a scene in which he has Cornwall going down on Edmond in a lesbian seduction.)

"When Ruth first said she wanted to speak Lear’s lines" – Breuer’s thinking out loud again – "it took me a while to understand that there were certain political imperatives inherent in that desire. What’s one of the first things you see? That Lear’s story, at least in part, is about the relationship between power and love. A man can be powerful and still be loved, but it’s rare to see a woman loved for her power – women must be powerless. So as women gain power in our society, they also find love more difficult to attain. Look, I feel like a guest in the culture of gender – franky, it’s a tricky balance between being patronizing or feeling cowed – but it seems to me that if you can make Lear’s events plausible with the genders reversed, you can show that the struggle for power is more basic than men and women, that our unending competitive drive lives on regardless of gender, that the different ways men and women deal with power are essentially differences in style. It’d be the same if dogs played all the parts – ’cause in a sense it’s a play about the dog-eat-dog of it all."

Another reason the project appealed to him is that it fit so well into his recent obsessions. "Just as Gospel at Colonnus perceived race as culture," he goes on in the Breuer manner, picking every word with great care but at a brisk pace, "so Lear perceives gender as culture. As a white European play was reconceived to render truthfully aspects of the life of African Americans, so an Elizabethan play by a man can be adapted to render truthfully aspects of culture that are feminine. There are cultures of race, cultures of gender, cultures of generations, all kinds of cultures, and each has its own behavior patterns, language, rules, moral structure, and so on. Now every one of us belongs to many of these cultures – what interests me is which culture determines the way we behave in which circumstances. Am I reacting as a man or a woman? As an American or as a Jew? As an old person or as a young person? In my theater pieces, I’m trying to examine culture from this point of view."

But didn’t this project originate with a much simpler desire – Maleczech’s almost wistful wish for a chance to play Lear? Isn’t there a danger that the emphasis is turning from Maleczech’s performance to Breuer’s theories, that her acting will be overwhelmed by his thesis-giddy conceptual apparatus? After all, her performance, precisely in its exemplary eloquence, is really rather traditional. As JoAnne Akalaitis puts it, having directed Maleczech in many of her major roles, "Ruth has a tremendous gift for articulating moments, those crucial moments when everything is crystallized." Maleczech’s reading of "Reason not the need," for instance, far from Mabou Mines ironic detachment, moves audiences to tears. And her rendering of "Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, and thou no breath at all?" comes as close as our theater will ever come to making Lear, as Doctor Johnson said, virtually unendurable in its pain.

Maleczech remains untroubled. "That kind of concern is a stage all our productions go through," she says. "The directorial ideas aren’t always coming from the same place as the performance ideas. But Lear was never meant to be just about performance, and when you reach the point in composing a piece where the concentration flips, where you stop working on performance alone, when you start integrating and cohering all the elements, it can all seem foreign at first, it can be very difficult, it can even be hell. But no, I’m not worried at all."

Nor is Breuer. "One of the things Lear is gonna do," he says, "is announce that Ruth has crossed the line into greatness. She’s been on the verge, but now we can say she’s a genius." He pauses for a moment, as if a bit baffled by what he finds himself about to say next. "She’s a brilliantly thinking actress. But she also has – I don’t quite know how to put this – she also has a kinda kinky anti-thinking side too."

"Kinky? Me?" Maleczech laughs in affectionate dismissal. "I’m probably the most colorless, hopelessly normal person around," she says, her palm placed flat on her chest. "Nothing important ever happened to me."

This isn’t modesty or self-effacement, for she can be bluntly assertive when necessary, but a kind of reflexive counter to Breuer’s tendency toward brain-fevered grandiloquence. Couples make contracts, of course, and theirs sometimes seems to assign Maleczech the role of sensible, amused, feet-on-the-ground earth mother, while Breuer plays the adventurous visionary, floating off in clouds of endearing rhetoric. Yet one has only to see the madness in Maleczech’s eyes in the storm scenes, or the cunning, the rage, the pain with which she confronts Lear’s children, to sense the complexity of character this view conceals.

MALCZECH AND BREUER met at UCLA in the late ’50s, Maleczech arriving via Cleveland (where she was born to Yugoslavian immigrants) and Phoenix (where her steelworker father moved for his health). Her first encounter with theater was as a witch in a class play at the age of eight, and though she performed in Blithe Spirit and Taming of the Shrew in high school, cheerleading and typing class seemed more important (she’s still never made a living in the theater, earning more as a legal secretary). Drama brought Maleczech and Breuer together, but they were both too restless to stick it out to graduation, soon dropped out, and headed north for the action. In San Francisco, Maleczech played Emily in Our Town and worked backstage at the Actors Workshop (where, as a dresser, she saw her only live performance of King Lear, with Breuer as Herb Blau’s assistant director). Even more important, she took acting classes with Ronnie Davis, head of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, her first exposure to nontraditional dramatic forms – and to non-Stanislavski acting, working on the text instead of on the role, the actor not leaving the self at home, but keeping it present in the performance.

Within months, she and Breuer had become the focus of a lively Beckett/Genet/Brecht scene, but those were the moving-on days. Soon it was time to hitch to New York, then time for a freighter to Europe and immersion in the continental avant-garde – the Berliner Ensemble, Jerzy Grotowski, down-and-out-with the gurus. Turkey, Morocco, Rhodes – they lived in stables, in garages, with friends, with strangers, and finally, in the late ’60s, landed in Paris, where Breuer settled down to write and Maleczech got gigs dubbing the voice of Catherine Deneuve. When they eventually hooked up with David Warrilow, JoAnne Akalaitis, and Phillip Glass, old friends from San Francisco, Mabou Mines was born. And so was Ruth Maleczech – up until 1969 she’d been Ruth Reinprecht ("It means ‘probing for cleanliness,’" she says wryly), but on the way to meet Grotowski in Poland she decided on Male (for small) and Czech (for Prague, for Kafke), a combination that also echoed Maletiç, her mother’s Serbo-Croatia name.

This season marks the troupe’s 20th anniversary, and while they’ve received all the right grants, a fistful of Obies, and international recognition as the country’s leading experimental theater troupe, it’s been an often discouraging struggle. For one thing, until very recently, when Mabou Mines finally got an NEA ensemble grant, they paid their members less than $10,000 a year. And a project like Lear, despite Breuer’s dream of uniting classic texts and pop sensibilities, doesn’t exactly have box office boffo written all over it.

Some of Breuer’s ideas Maleczech agrees with, some she finds irrelevant, but the parameters of their relationship (personally as well as professionally) are wide enough that they can each go their own way without disturbing their harmony. "Lee is very fluid in his thinking," she says. "He’s not afraid to go out on a limb with his own psyche, so he can help performers do that too." On a fellowship in Italy last summer, for instance, "Lee decided he wanted the production more out of whack – more chaos, more tumult. He moved some speeches, somersaulted some scenes. It helped brings out the humor in a more contemporary way, and that helped bring out the tragedy." On the other hand, Breuer conceives of Lear at least partly in terms of "an Alzheimer-type personality, incapacity alternating with flashes of clarity," while Maleczech finds that interpretation of no use at all; more humanist in her instincts, she simply focuses on "the hatred for old people in our culture."

What surprises her most is that, in adapting the text, they had more difficulty with royalty than with gender, and that audiences seem more uneasy about the updating than about the gender reversals. But maybe that just means that the gender reversals have taken. No one connected with the production comes remotely close to claiming that this is a definitive Lear – all they ask is that audiences open themselves up to the possibility of fresh perceptions. "Most of my own new ideas have to do with violence," says Maleczech, whose original fear, years ago, was that they might end up with "a kitchen Lear." "When you see women committing those horrible acts of brutality," she says, "it can shake up your preconceptions. But for me it’s still that original impulse – to own the language, to own it for myself, and then to give it to the audience from a woman’s consciousness."

Does she feel that Lear is the peak toward which she’s been heading all her career? The culmination of over 30 years in the theater? The transcendent role in a long and . . .

Maleczech interrupts with a whoa, calm-down gesture. "My goodness, what kind of talk is that? In the first place," she says, "theater is completely ephemeral, it’s there and then it’s gone. There are no souvenirs except what’s left in your mind and in your feelings. The most intense, the most compelling experiences simply disappear into the ether. That’s why I love it so – because you can trust it.

"And as for peak experiences" – she pauses, smiles serenely – "I always think of everything I’m doing as the peak. If your work is complete and fulfilling, how can you think about the last piece, or the next piece, or anything but the piece you’re involved in right now? I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing – working with Mabou Mines, raising two terrific children, and not starving in the process. When you’re deeply, irretrievably in love, do you wonder what it’ll be like the next time you fall in love?"