A ’60s theater rad­i­cal

Los Angeles Times - - CULTURE MONSTER - CHARLES MCNULTY THEATER CRITIC charles.mcnulty@la­times.com

Had Ju­dith Malina never ex­isted, the 1960s would have had to in­vent her. Yet it was Malina, a diminu­tive, Ger­man-born, Amer­i­can provo­ca­teur of im­mense com­mit­ment and courage, who helped crys­tal­lize our no­tions of 1960s aes­thetic and po­lit­i­cal rad­i­cal­ism through the Living Theatre, the com­pany she founded with hus­band Ju­lian Beck in 1948.

Malina, who died Fri­day at age 88, was a stu­dent of Er­win Pis­ca­tor, a ma­jor in­flu­ence on Ber­tolt Brecht. She clearly ab­sorbed a good deal of what Brecht took in, be­cause her work syn­the­sized his vi­sion of epic theater with An­tonin Ar­taud’s theater of cru­elty, mix­ing in Vsevolod Mey­er­hold’s biome­chan­ics and Jerzy Gro­towski’s poor theater, and serv­ing it up in New York’s newly bur­geon­ing un­der­ground theater scene.

In “Play­ing Un­der­ground: A Crit­i­cal His­tory of the 1960s Off-Off-Broad­way Move­ment,” Stephen J. Bot­toms calls the Living Theatre “the sin­gle most in­flu­en­tial Amer­i­can com­pany of its era.” Malina and Beck, he writes, wanted to cre­ate a theater, in Malina’s own words, of “pure art, pure po­etry, [with] the high­est level of artis­tic adventure, the high­est level of ex­per­i­ment, the high­est level of po­lit­i­cal ad­vance.”

Many of its pro­duc­tions — Jack Gel­ber’s “The Con­nec­tion” (1959), Ken­neth Brown’s “The Brig” (1963) and “Par­adise Now,” which led to the ar­rest of per­form­ers and au­di­ence mem­bers for public in­de­cency at Yale in 1968 — be­came the­atri­cal wa­ter­sheds.

When a re­vival of “The Brig” came to the Odyssey Theatre in 2008, I was wor­ried that this might be a nos­tal­gia trip, but the work had a hal­lu­ci­na­tory hold on me. With two wars go­ing on, the pol­i­tics were starkly rel­e­vant. But it was the aus­tere dy­namism of the per­for­mance, the way it en­acted its mean­ing and the­atri­cal­ized its op­po­si­tional mes­sage, that kept the piece from seem­ing stylis­ti­cally dated.

Malina made oc­ca­sional ap­pear­ances in movies (play­ing Granny in “The Ad­dams Fam­ily” in 1991) and on tele­vi­sion. But it was through the Living Theatre that she left an in­deli­ble mark. Her rad­i­cal­ism, which never lost its ur­gency or mission, in­spired new gen­er­a­tions of pro­gres­sive theater mak­ers strug­gling to find al­ter­na­tives in a sys­tem that has grown only more thor­oughly com­mer­cial­ized.

When asked to sum up his old friend’s le­gacy, Yale School of Drama pro­fes­sor and critic Gor­don Ro­goff said: “Ju­dith was a direc­tor with a dif­fer­ence — tempt­ing ac­tors into a per­for­mance on be­half of the non-vi­o­lent revo­lu­tion she was al­ways stag­ing re­gard­less of the ma­te­rial, the in­spi­ra­tions, the ideas, and the text.”

Cindy Ord Getty Images

JU­DITH MALINA co­founded Living Theatre.

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