Pioneering theatrical figure brings two productions, done his own way

On the day the American theater director and playwright Lee Breuer spoke to Kathimerini about two upcoming productions of his in Athens, the situation here was chaotic. The capital’s streets were clogged with heavy traffic and Syntagma Square was packed with protesting strikers. To top it all off, the air force was busy rehearsing for its March 25 Independence Day celebrations. We were on the rooftop of one of the city’s major hotels while arrangements of F-16’s flew past right above us. The first time they shot past, one of Breuer’s associates jokingly questioned: «Could it be because of something you said»? During the interview, the 70-year-old Breuer proved to be just as chirpy, but not garrulous. His «Gospel at Colonus,» a revised gospel version of Sophocles’ tragedy «Oedipus at Colonus,» will be presented at the Herod Atticus Theater on June 21 as part of the Athens Festival. Then, a month later, from July 21 to 24, Breuer’s production of the Henrik Ibsen play «A Doll’s House» will be presented at Pireos 260 (Building D). Breuer’s «Gospel at Colonus» premiered in 1985 in New York City. The original cast included the Academy Award-winning actor, film director and narrator Morgan Freeman. «The performance has now been running successfully for some 25 years,» said Breuer. «I don’t have Morgan anymore. His fee costs as much as 2 million dollars.» Breuer’s blinded Oedipus is represented by a team of blind actors. «Services at the Pentecostal Church have a Dionysian character and this is where the connection with gospel lies. I could imagine Ray Charles as Oedipus or Aretha Franklin as Antigone,» noted Breuer. «Do you know what touches me? The play will be performed at the Herod Atticus Theater, a one-minute walk from the Theater of Dionysus, where Sophocles had staged his tragedy.» «A Doll’s House,» the Ibsen play to be presented by Breuer here, which was written in 1879, was controversial for its time. It questions the institution of marriage and is regarded by some critics as «the first feminist play.» Ibsen would probably have cringed at this. For Breuer, however, it «introduced feminism to theater. It denounced the oppression of women.» Adding his customary personal touch to Ibsen’s play, all the men’s role are performed by dwarfs. The idea dates back to a performance of Shakespeare’s «Coriolanus,» as directed by Bertolt Brecht, which Breuer had seen as a 28-year-old. «He had cast two of the smallest people you’ve ever seen to play the roles of two high-ranking officers of the Roman army. The soldiers looked gigantic next to them, but they obeyed the orders of the dwarfs. This was a political comment, like watching the Marx Brothers,» said Breuer. «During Ibsen’s time, there was only comedy and tragedy. Brecht, as well as Samuel Beckett, introduced the tragicomic element, the irony, to theater. In the post-modern era, a production can be neither tragedy nor comedy… it can have something schizophrenic about it.» Through the Ibsen play, Breuer said his team was not condemning power but patriarchy. «Nora lives in a world of dwarfs. Everything is adjusted to their scale. To kiss her husband, Nora must bend down. The dwarfs order the women and they obey – like spoiled children who order their parents around as they please,» said Breuer. «The power of men is an illusion. Of course, men suffer as well, because the system offers them only one role to play, that of the master,» he continued. Responding to a comment by this writer about change in this domain in the contemporary era, Breuer noted: «True – but the new question today is that women have power, they run for presidencies, but I’m told that the more powerful they are, the more difficult it becomes for them to find a man… I was in Colombia, where an amazing lady organizes a major festival. She has thousands of men at her feet, but she’s alone. In Hong Kong, two gorgeous, dynamic 35-year-old women organize most of the festivals and they tell me that men are afraid of them. They prefer to go to China to find obedient women.» When asked how theatergoers had reacted to his version of «A Doll’s House,» Breuer said: «We’ve toured America, Asia, Australia – it was a success everywhere. The places where some people thought the play insulted manhood were the US south and Israel. Also, I projected a video of the performance in Thessaloniki and the men there were annoyed. It’s a matter of conservatism.» A life without complaints Lee Breuer, now 71, in his words: «In 1958, I went to San Francisco to become a beatnik. I met Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg. I did theater, performance, we listened to jazz and read poetry in public. I directed Ferlinghetti’s first play. We became friends. You couldn’t become a friend of Kerouac’s. He was always drunk. This was the other side of America. The hippies came after 1963. Beatniks smoked hash and drank. Hippies brought in psychedelic pills. It was no longer poetry and jazz but rock’n’roll. Everything was for the music. The beatniks were writers and the hippies, musicians.» Breuer experienced 60s avant garde and, in 1970, set up the experimental theatrical team Mabou Mines with his partner Ruth Maleczech. «In a way, we invented what is now known as performance, Living Theater. The game is different today – technology, computers, a combination of theater and media. I’m 71, I’ve lived well, seen all these changes… I don’t have complaints.»