Julian Beck felt the essential dilemma for the Living Theatre was “how to create that spectacle, that Aztec, convulsive, plague-ridden panorama that would so shake people up, so move them, so cause feeling to be felt, there in the body, that the steel world of law and order which civilization had forged to protect itself from barbarism would melt (and get us back to feeling real emotions).” The company’s mission statement said it wanted to “increase conscious awareness, stress the sacredness of life, and break down the walls.” Confrontational, anarchistic, pacifist, and libertarian, the troupe claimed through its cofounder Judith Malina that “they were on the edge of the next step in theatrical development–a committed political group trying to express a hopeful future . . . [using] the audience as a real element instead of a passive observer.” If that wasn’t enough to scare you away from the bowels of the city where they so often performed, the Living Theater often found themselves closed down by police violations or fire codes, terminally broke, continually garnering opposition, forced to move on to Italy or Brazil or even Pittsburgh.
Of course, historically—and the inception of The Living Theater harkens back to 1947–their productions of The Connection, The Brig, Frankenstein, and Paradise Now were infamous. In 1968, Harold Clurman found them “anti-art . . . fanatics of amateurism . . . a cult.” Poet Anne Waldman—Beat, Buddhist, and one of the founders of Boulder’s Naropa Institute—whose play, Red Noir, is currently being presented by the company—also notes that the Living Theater allowed a culmination and continuation of “an historical lineage, which includes Antonin Artaud, Bertolt Brecht, Gertrude Stein, Erwin Piscator, Julian Beck, and Hanon Reznikov.” To a degree, mad artists all. For those reasons alone it’s worth keeping up to date on what the group is doing—especially since now not only are Malina’s and Waldman’s work on view, but also that of the great interpreter of Irene Fornes’s plays during the 1980s: Sheila Dabney.
Waldman brings a lighter, perhaps more mainstream, play to the troupe—especially if one compares it to a work like The Connection, which Clurman thought was like looking “into a corner of our city to breathe the rank air of its unacknowledged dejection.” Not that Waldman hasn’t populated Red Noir with a variety of lost souls—she explores, as Malina states, “many areas of the terrain of Good and Evil . . . delving into the motivations for lying, dealing, and killing that constitute the realist/fiction of our lives.” But detailed ultra-realism isn’t what this play is interested in—rather we’re watching a dissolve—Red Noir borrows conventions from crime movies and novels—into the Living Theater’s philosophic ideal: Anarchy. At first you’ll wonder if you’re supposed to tear down the black curtains separating the lobby from the theater space, but on entrance Malina confronts the audience with roaming actors, over 20 of them, all in black: vests, halters, pants, naked arms. You might feel a little giddy being exposed to a ‘60s environmental set again, with the expectation of being part of a “happening.” Although Waldman does mention the “tribe, “ it comes across more as an outtake from Hair than a reference to a loss of individuality—later she also includes initialisms a la , “L.B.J. took the I.R.T.” (the program does state that “physical participation is encouraged," but a friend who went with me was clear that he did not want to join the spiraling movement and did so without repercussion).
Maybe it’s the Buddhist element that takes the edge off the Living Theatre in Red Noir: the chants, the humming mantras, the pieces of poetry. It’s also something of relief that the evening is so free: Waldman hasn’t written a “well-made” play, and she shouldn’t have, and it doesn’t matter in the least (I dare someone to actually try to piece the plot together, all the way through, amid all the blooming chaos)—as Karen Finley once said in one of her monologues, “It’s not supposed to make sense anyway.” In fact, it would have been a less easy anarchic victory if Waldman had chosen to deconstruct a Chinatown or The Postman Always Rings Twice for her story instead of a parody of Kiss Me Deadly because it would be harder to let go of a true noir’s searing narrative grip. Waldman does give us compelling random thoughts like, “We struggle with the war against the imagination” while we may be trying to do hand movements with someone in the cast or, upon accessing my limited physical possibilities, simply bobbing up and down. “Really the world is a chemical book, it’s toxic, toxic, toxic.” We hear, “Imagination, anarchy, who is for anarchy?” For one night in the middle of a war without an exit strategy there are worse words we could be intoning, even if to those like myself, they seem too utopian for our circumstance. The point is that the talent at the Living Theater is ongoing and that the company is alive.
Ruby is not the most dimensioned portrait Sheila Dabney ever had to create—but her tough, Eartha Kitt-like performance might be one of her most fun. How good to see her again: Before the play, in front of the theater, she came out in jeans and dreadlocks to have a cigarette. For a few minutes she was quiet, hanging near an outdoor sign, maybe reading it the way you’d read the back of a cereal box at 6:30 in the morning. Without finishing it, she stamped on the butt thrown in the street, and, in an almost vaudeville-like turn—fully focused, like the Living troupe itself–marched right back in that theater.
(C) 2009 by Bob Shuman
Directed by Judith Malina
Camilla de Araujo, Brent Barker, Vinie Burrows, Maylin Castro, Ben Cerf, Sheila Dabney, Jay Dobkin, Luis Christian Dilorenzi, Erin Downhour, Eno Edet, Tjasa Ferme, Ondina Frate, Gemma Forbes, Maria Guzman, Home Hynes, Silas Inches, Albert Lamont, Jenna Kirk, Celeste Moratti, Martin Munoz, Lucie Pohl, Marie Pohl, Erik Rodriguez, Judi Rymer, Anthony Sisco, Lori Summers, Enoch Wu, and Kennedy Yanko.
Lighting design: Richard Retta; set design: Judith Malina, Ilion Troya and Richard Retta; musical direction: Sheila Dabney. Brad Burgess serves as assistant director.
Performances of Anne Waldman's RED NOIR run December 7-January 30 at The Living Theatre (21 Clinton Street). Performances are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8pm (with the following exceptions, no performances Friday, December 18, Thursday, December 24, and Friday, December 25; additional performances Monday, December 7 and Tuesday, December 8). Tickets are $20 (Wednesdays are Pay What You Can). For reservations call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.theatermania.com/
For additional information, visit http://www.livingtheatre.org/
Press contact: Shirley Herz and Robert Lasko at Shirley Herz Associates
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