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The Living Theatre takes its act of protest everywhere it goes

Robert Hurwitt, Chronicle Theater Critic

Monday, July 26, 2004
San Francisco Chronicle
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The insurrection is quiet and cordial, befitting the St. Francis Hotel conference room where it takes place. Before the reporter knows what's happening, the subjects have commandeered the interview and, scripts in hand, turned it into a performance.

"Why the Living Theatre is returning to New York," a lanky, bearded Hanon Reznikov intones in a gently resonant baritone.

"Because the people in charge haven't got a clue," his wife, tiny and vibrant Living Theatre co-founder Judith Malina responds.

As they alternate lines, Malina's expressive voice seems to transform her. At 78, she's a child on one line ("because this is where we grew up") and a hormone-raging teen on the next ("because sex is coming back") -- not to mention a society vamp ("because it's expensive, darling"), a suggestive seer ("because no man is an island but Manhattan is") and a committed revolutionary ("because regime change begins at home").

Not that the performance has much to do with the official purpose of Malina and Reznikov's rare Bay Area visit. They'd flown in for the weekend to attend the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival opening of "Resist: To Be With the Living," Dirk Szuszies and Karin Kaper's new documentary about the Living Theatre. But New York is very much on their minds right now, and the Living has a long history to maintain of disrupting hierarchic social constructs (such as interviews) and performing in unexpected places.

Founded in 1948 by Malina and Julian Beck -- her husband until his death from cancer in 1985 -- the Living is so much a part of American theater history that many people are surprised to learn it's still active. It is, though. The company that pioneered off-off-Broadway performance in the '50s, and became an icon of experimental techniques and radical anarcho- pacifist commitment in the '60s, is still going strong -- in both Italy and New York, where it's building a new theater, and conducting political-theater workshops all over the world.

Some of its past and present is depicted in "Resist," though the history is murky and the current material focuses on demonstrations and workshops, particularly one in Lebanon at a former "torture prison" now run as a museum by Hezbollah ("They didn't know we were Jewish," Malina observes; "No," Reznikov agrees, "it never came up").

The lack of focus on the Living's plays, Reznikov says, is because Szuszies "isn't that interested in theater." But the skimpiness of the history also fits into Malina's dislike of terms such as "legend." A recent inductee into the Theatre Hall of Fame (with Kevin Kline and Vanessa Redgrave), she seems both appreciative and impatient with such honors.

"This interviewer asked her, 'How does it feel to be a legend?' " Reznikov prompts, "and she said ..."

"I said, 'F -- the legend!' " Malina roars, "and he said..."

"I thought that was my job," Reznikov finishes the bit.

"The past is a burden," Malina adds. "If someone like you interviews me, you want to know about the past. But I want to know about the future. Because that's where I'm going. The past is there. It certainly adds up, but it isn't so terribly interesting to me, except insofar as we can learn from our errors. But it holds us back, a whole culture based on competition and rivalry and having more, and we have to get out of that. We're either gonna destroy ourselves or we have to find another way to live together on this planet."

"I can be optimistic," Reznikov interjects, "on the basis that it's such a young experiment, this thing we call civilization. It's 6,000 years since Sumeria, and if you think of people being able to live 100 years, that's no more than the lifetime of 60 people, one born the day after another died. That's not a lot of time to work it all out. So if we behave like children, it may be because civilization is that young. On the other hand, we're children .. ."

"Playing with firearms," Malina somberly completes the thought.

It's a tandem act, this couple that looks like the components of an exclamation mark placed side by side. Together, they encapsulate the history of the Living Theatre. The experimental company Beck and Malina ran in the '50s achieved widespread notice with Jack Gelber's gritty drug drama "The Connection" in '59. Always poor, and behind in its rent and taxes, it was locked out of its theater by the IRS in '63 during Kenneth Brown's "The Brig," a punishing, harrowing re-enactment of life in a military prison. At a famous final performance, the audience climbed ladders to get into the padlocked theater.

The Living spent most of the rest of the '60s in Europe, participating in the student rebellions that culminated in the government-shaking general strike in France in '68 -- and generating a name for itself as a radical theater collective. Its signature piece was "Paradise Now," a confrontational work in which "we broke every rule," Malina recalls. "We burned money. We tore out the seats and carried them up on the stage. We got busted in city after city because we ended the piece with, 'The theater is in the streets!' and led the audience into the streets and half the people were naked."

Paradoxically, as radical as it was in Europe, "Paradise Now" was regarded as old-hat -- theatrically and politically -- by the time it toured America, reaching the Bay Area in '69. The Living returned to Europe, then moved on to Morocco and Brazil, developing its techniques for living in impoverished communities and helping the residents create plays that express their problems and needs -- work that resulted in Brazilian prison stays for Beck, Malina and other members.

It's the group's continued commitment that's sustained its legend. Reznikov, who joined in '73 -- becoming both Malina's and Beck's lover for a while -- soon emerged as one of the company's lead writers and directors, along with the founders. Now 53 -- the same age, he points out, as Malina's son (she also has a daughter, three grandchildren and a 4-year-old great granddaughter) -- he and Malina married a few years after Beck's death. With their company ensconced in "a 1650 palazzo" in Reggio Ligura in Italy (where the Living has been popular for decades) their prime energies are focused on getting their new theater in New York up and running by this winter -- that and helping plan massive street theater demonstrations to enliven the coming Republican convention.

Today the Living is a company of "10 and 10 and six," Reznikov says.

"Right," Malina adds, "10 people in Europe and 10 in New York and six of us that move back and forth."

"What we call the nucleo historico," says Reznikov, "people that have been together for 20 years or more."

They have a new piece in rehearsal, "Enigma" -- based on Beck's last notes for a theater piece -- and other plans for the new space as well. "Tony Kushner's promised us a new play," Reznikov says. "He said he'd be honored."

Malina mentions a play in the works by poet Anne Waldman and adds that it's time to revive "The Brig" -- "Because we had some trouble in a prison recently that shocked people in a shocking way. Americans were more shocked by a woman leading a naked man around on a leash to humiliate him than the 'collateral damage' of hundreds of innocent men, women and children murdered."

In the meantime, there are the street theater demonstrations in New York to be planned. And Malina and Reznikov are off to Israel in October to address a theater festival, after trying to gain admission for decades -- as they discuss in "Resist." That reminds Malina of the workshop with Lebanese youth recorded in the movie.

"Our concept was to bring nonviolent resistance as a tactic," she says. "About one-third of the workshop group felt they had to leave the group because they couldn't renounce violence, and they were right to leave. If they didn't believe it, they shouldn't perform it. You can argue for hours about armed struggle, it's a very difficult debate. But we're trying to bring the principle of nonviolent resistance, one that can work in strange ways, like the end of apartheid in South Africa, even the end of the Soviet Union.

"And most of the group, the ones that stayed with us, they were so sick of war that our pacifism was very appealing to them. These were kids who were brought up, every night having to go down to the basement and listen to the bombarding and go up to see what's left in the morning. They lived that way as children. And they really want peace, they want to change the situation, and they don't know how.

"Neither do we. Neither do you. We're all in the same boat as these Lebanese youngsters. We're asking: How do we make peace? In a way, the Living Theatre has been doing research on that for 50-something years. How do we do it? Most people want it. We don't want the massacres and the murders and the bombings. But we don't know how to get out of it, how to change the situation, the perspective. That's what all of our work is about."

�Resist: To Be With the Living,� a film about the Living Theatre, will be shown in the Jewish Film Festival at 4:30 p.m. Aug. 2, at UC Berkeley�s Wheeler Auditorium, and at 2:30 p.m. Aug. 4 at Century Cinema 16 in Mountain View. The Jewish Film Festival, with more than 40 films from around the world, runs through Aug. 9 in four Bay Area cities. For information, call (925) 275- 9490 or visit www.sfjff.org.

E-mail Robert Hurwitt at rhurwitt@sfchronicle.com.

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