Theater

ATTACK OF THE SAGACIOUS ANTS

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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.

ASU West is equally enthusiastic about having him, and hopes to develop plays that ultimately will be able to, as Breuer puts it, bounce to New York.

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Anna Dooling