ATTACK OF THE SAGACIOUS ANTS
Everything that could have gone wrong did. The puppeteer hadn't shown up. Instead of the five or six friends Lee Breuer was expecting, an audience of 35 adults and children had materialized. He wanted to cancel the performance but was told he couldn't. So he addressed the audience, warning parents that the show contained some bawdy language. A couple of days later, the Arizona Republic harrumphed at how he had implied Arizonans were unsophisticated.
That's not all. Breuer also remembers that as he walked to the front of the crowd at ASU West that night last September, wearing his silk drawstring pants but no shoes, one guy in the front row turned to a companion and asked, "Who is that asshole?"
After more than two decades working in the avant-garde, Breuer is used to being called an asshole. Like the drunk who says he's been thrown out of better places than this, Breuer has been panned by better papers than the Republic. He has had, he's explaining in a telephone conversation from New York, a long-running feud with the New York Times' Frank Rich, who once panned a Breuer show by saying that's what you get when you give little theatre companies National Endowment money.
Breuer is a founder of Mabou Mines, since its inception in 1970 one of the foremost experimental theatres in the country; Mabou Mines helped create the genre known as performance art. Despite Frank Rich, the company has had a string of successes, most notably Breuer's adaptation of the Oedipus myth in the idiom of a black gospel service in The Gospel at Colonus. The show received a handful of awards in 1984 and was nominated for a Tony.
Mabou Mines is now expanding its range to include the Valley. Since last year, Breuer has been teaching theatre at ASU West, and a couple of performances next week will formally announce his presence here.
The first is The Mahabharanta, which is the finished version of the disastrous reading Breuer tried to cancel in September. Not only will it have the puppeteer, the production will be a duplicate of the one that has just completed a two-week run off-Broadway in New York. Phoenix is the only city besides New York that will be treated to a production of the work, scheduled for a single performance next Tuesday at ASU West.
Also opening next week is Breuer's A Prelude to Death in Venice, a one-man show that will have a two-week run at Playwright's Workshop Theatre.
Although vastly different in both scope and content, the two shows do have one thing in common: They bear witness to Breuer's interest in the puppetry of the Far East. The character in Prelude wears a three-foot-tall puppet across his face and chest in a manner inspired by the Japanese Bunraku tradition. And The Mahabharanta employs the shadow-puppet style of Bali to tell a tale that conjoins classic Hindu epic with modern politics and reflections upon the sex lives of insects.
Breuer came across Bali's shadow puppetry partly as a result of the Gulf War. "I had a Fulbright to go to India," he says. "Then the war started and they canceled them all." He had to wait somewhere for a couple of months until his money was reinstated, he says, so he and his family flew to Bali, where they could live more cheaply than they could in the United States. Now in his 50s, Breuer still has more fame than fortune.
While in Bali, he saw a show involving shadow puppetry. He was so impressed by the puppeteer, I Wayan Wija, that he hired a car and began following the itinerant artist from village to village.
In Bali, as in southern India and Java, the two other places it is done, shadow puppetry is truly a popular art. "The shows start at about 11 o'clock at night and go til 3 or 4 in the morning," Breuer says. "Everybody sits on the floor--there's no admission charge. People come around selling tea and cakes, everybody watches the show and the kids fall asleep."
The stories the puppets enact are from the Mahabharata, the epic poem of Hindu literature whose writing extended over some hundreds of years and whose text covers some 88,000 verses.
"It's like performing the Bible," Breuer says, but funnier. "If you think about a sermon in a black Pentecostal church, there'd be great jokes. It would be a lot different from a Presbyterian service, which would be very serious.
"It's like telling the story of David and Goliath with Dennis the Menace and Godzilla."
Breuer approached Wija, whom he describes as "a wild guy," with the idea of collaborating on a theatre piece and the puppeteer accepted enthusiastically. A workshop performance of The Mahabharanta was set for ASU West in September, but Wija's father died in Bali, forcing his return. Hence the puppetless performance. (Breuer says he thought the audience enjoyed it anyway.)
Next Tuesday's show will be the real thing, with Wija sitting in the traditional puppeteer's position behind a white screen, holding silhouette figures in front of a lamp. He moves their arms and legs with sticks, and in a performance in Bali he would also sing, play percussion on a block of wood and assume the voices of as many as 40 different characters. Because Wija lacks fluency in English, two members of Mabou Mines will assume the characters' voices, although the usual gamelan orchestra will provide accompaniment.
The original Mahabharata is an endlessly complicated story involving the rivalry of two sets of cousins over the possession of a kingdom in India. The action extends over a number of years and includes self-sacrifice, treachery, illegitimate children, arson, wars, dice games, trips to heaven--in other words, just about everything under the sun.
Although Breuer thinks the play will be amusing to everyone, viewers familiar with the Mahabharata will obviously see more in it. Breuer has taken as his inspiration a tiny fragment of the poem, the section involving the warrior Arjuna's visiting his father in heaven. In Breuer's world, however, Arjuna is an ant, hence the play on the name, Mahabharanta rather than Mahabharata.
While all other male ants--drones--die after mating, this warrior ant has been spared. He views himself as the savior of the world, and he goes to heaven to visit his father and discover the true role of an ant that did not die.
The secret, he is told, is that he is half termite. His father is actually a reincarnation of Trotsky in the body of a wood-eating bug. (Breuer's credentials as an intellectual who came of age in the 50s and 60s are more than evident in his fondness for both things Eastern and things revolutionary.) The warrior ant realizes that the revolution will have to start with insects, and after consciousness-raising workshops, the bugs do battle with the enemy on the White House lawn.
Like the Mahabharata, Breuer throws in references to just about everything but the kitchen sink. Again using an incident from the Hindu epic, the one in which Arjuna objects to killing enemies who are also his relatives, Breuer parallels the famous dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna. In his version, however, Krishna is E.O. Wilson, the well-known biologist who several years ago published the definitive work on ants. There are also references to Frank Rich, as well as to a couple of dinosaurs named Ford and Guggenheim, foundations that Breuer has had less than good luck in shaking money from. "It's like Balinese traditional art narrated and acted by Lenny Bruce," he says of the theatre work.
Like its Hindu inspiration, Breuer's Mahabharanta is part of an epic the writer and director has been working on for years. The complete story of the warrior ant actually stretches over some nine hours, he says, and is in turn part of an even more encompassing epic that apparently stretches over Breuer's whole lifetime. A Prelude to Death in Venice is also part of that larger work, although it's difficult to see any connection--besides the puppets--between the two.
Prelude, which was first mounted in 1980, is a monologue with two telephones. Conversing with his mother--the answering machine of a woman avoiding him--and possibly with the ghost of Thomas Mann, the central character is a man hovering on the brink. The work has multiple layers, many of which are quite funny, but is essentially an exploration of the artistic self.
"He's kind of a homeless guy," says Steve Peabody, who did the show here earlier this year in a standout performance, and who will return for the stint at Playwright's Workshop Theatre. "He's homeless in a more poetic sense of the word, he's homeless without art."
It was this play that Breuer's nemesis Frank Rich panned so unmercifully, although other critics disagreed with him sufficiently to award the play two Obies. Although the New York Times can make or break a show, Breuer knows he appeals more to the cognoscenti than the masses.
"I'm not going to have a commercial career at my point," Breuer says. He's still trying to get his credit card reinstated--that trip to Bali prompted the company to cancel it. Still, he's hopeful about his association with ASU West, mostly because he's been spared the kind of bureaucratic red tape that works on writers in academic settings like cages work on animals in the zoo.
Still, for a man who has taught at the Yale Drama School, Phoenix is more than a little change of pace. "I've been in a lot of big scenes," Breuer admits, "and Phoenix is absolutely nowhere. So it's a real struggle."
Still, he says, "Yale sucks. I'd rather be in a place where at least they know they don't know anything.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.