Life as a hologram: Lee Breuer

Lee Breuer
La Divina Caricatura: Bunraku Meets Motown
(Seagull Press, Dec 2018)

Rose and John, her beloved master, in Lee Breuer’s La Divina Caricatura. Photo: Beatriz Schiller.

“What I didn’t know about old age,” says Lee Breuer, “is that it arrives in phases. I never expected the eighties to feel like this. But I guess that is the price you pay for living.”

Breuer and I meet for lunch at his favorite diner in Brooklyn. He orders bacon, eggs, and toast which arrives with a generous portion of butter—a dietary departure. We immediately start talking about his next project, a trilogy of plays called I Don’t Want to Change Your Mind, I Want to Change Your Music. His mind is undaunted, unrestrained by the aches of time. “It is an attempt,” he says, stealing breaths between mouthfuls, “to understand what my life would be like as a cubic entity, not a linear entity. An attempt to see this confusion from different perspectives, like it is a hologram that I can walk around.”

Over the last four decades, La Divina Caricatura has evolved into a similar hologram of Breuer’s life. It is a pataphysical performance poem, a play where Bunraku puppets play cubic cartoons. The exploration began with Shaggy Dog Animation, which was initially conceived as the final part of his Animation trilogy. While the other two parts represented earlier phases of his life, Shaggy Dog Animation was much more about the now. “It’s just my kind of fight with time,” says Breuer, “Time moves on and I’ve got to keep playing catch up.” Breuer poured more and more from his life into the play, creating sequels and building the plays as a metaphor to represent life as he was living it. In 2002, he published a novelistic representation of the first two parts, also titled La Divina Caricatura (Green Integer). As with all artists who use their own life as a source of inspiration and inquiry, Breuer has revised his work extensively since then. Now, for the first time, a collection of all its dramatic parts is being published as a book by Seagull in December. This will include the scripts for Shaggy Dog Animation, Ecco Porco, An Epidog, and Porco Morto, accompanied by thirty-four colored pictures.

Breuer, who co-founded the influential Mabou Mines theater nearly a half century ago has been among this country’s most audacious experimental theater renegades. He is perhaps best known for his Pulitzer and Tony-nominated Gospel at Colonus starring Morgan Freeman and the Obie award–winning Mabou Mines DollHouse, but this is just the tip of his ever-delving career. His work has been watched on five continents and has garnered a number of the most prestigious awards. Rose, the protagonist of La Divina Caricatura, became the first and the only puppet to have ever been awarded an Obie. A testament to Breuer’s genre defying work with puppets.

The plays in La Divina Caricatura explore the Dantean perspective on the lost soul engaging in a quest to find oneself. “A search,” says Breuer, “for something you don’t want to find.” The plays locate themselves in that blind spot where the awareness of being lost and the need to be saved converge and get projected onto a loved one—the savior, a Virgil or Beatrice of the fantasy. It is into this paradoxical triangulation of confused intentions and desires that Breuer plunges, inviting us to follow.    

Rose is a white-faced, green-eyed dog who wants to be a woman. John, her beloved master, is a junkie filmmaker. Ponzo Porco Ph.D. is a pig that has been born to sell out in a world where no one wants to buy; he confesses to “substance abuse” adding, “the substance we abuse is reality / Reality is the name one gives one’s fiction of choice.”

OBIE-winning Rose, of Lee Breuer’s La Divina Caricatura. Photo: Beatriz Schiller.

“Traditionally the idea of using animals has always been the choice of taking something that is socio-political and making it mythical,” says Breuer. Rose re-lives her search through her many lifetimes, embodying one of my favorite lines from the play: “One’s role when animated bares one’s soul / One’s soul is manifested as it plays its role.” She believes that her master’s love will make her a woman. John needs to be saved from himself, his habits, and most of all from his dead mother. “It is all about the mother, always,” says Breuer as he describes John’s women. “Rose was an amalgam of mother figures.” Through their relationship, the play lays bare the destructive power of their need-based attraction. “Rose represents the old myth of the romantic woman,” says Breuer, “It states, ‘to be loved is to be saved’. She needs to make her journey into the new paradigm—to be loved is to be respected.”

Shaggy Dog Animation, the first play in the series, premiered in 1978 at the Public Theater. The most recent performance of plays making up La Divina Caricatura was in La Mama’s Ellen Stewart Theater in 2013. Thirty-five years in the making—and as it happens the same age at which Dante found himself in the dark woods at the start of the Divine Comedy, a coincidence that highlights the parallelism. This play is an attempt to try and find a colloquial Dante.

It is also an attempt to lay bare our relationship with fate and free will. Breuer says, “You don’t know who your puppeteer is and what they want. You really can’t be sure. It would be so relaxing to believe that it is God, that you are being motivated by a good force. What people are looking for is an achievement in belief. They are following each other’s tails and going around in circles.”

Breuer’s vision was to convert the stage into a cubist poem, and he found just the right medium in Bunraku puppetry. Founded in Japan in the early 16th century, Bunraku is a sophisticated art form that distributes the control of the puppet into the hands of the puppeteers, chanters, and musicians. Each puppet has three puppeteers, the master whose face is left uncovered and his two assistants whose faces are covered.

John, Rose’s beloved master, in Lee Breuer’s La Divina Caricatura. Photo: Beatriz Schiller.

“I think it is rather critical that the lead puppeteer takes off his mask when performing and the other two keep their masks on. It is a way of extending the power of the master. Their faceless aspects make him the controller with six hands,” Breuer explains. “The philosopher John Gray wrote from the point of view of a puppet and had an interesting and positive take on that. The puppet has always been lifted and thrust by the puppeteer from one position to another. It would seem that the puppet is relieved of his fate because he could always rely on his puppeteers to tell him what to do next. I thought that was fascinating. He didn’t have to think about his fate. He could expect his puppeteer to demonstrate his fate to him.”

Rose’s fate is a palpable presence in the play. Right from the beginning where we see her being lifted off the tracks by the MTA (cast as a rat!) to when she is forced into a rehab at the Purgatory, you can see Rose wrestling with her fate—reaching out for control and then letting go when it’s within reach.

As we read the stage directions for the puppeteers and the singers, we experience the discordance of watching Rose in our mind’s eye while listening to her dislocated voice floating as a separate entity from a different part of the stage. This emphasizes the fractured relationship between will and fate, a schism that the characters are grappling with in their lives. The protagonist is mute. Her actions manifest through the motions of the puppeteer and her words spring from the lips of the narrator/singer. It is this phenomenon that is succinctly captured by a line in the play, “it is the tale that wags the dog.”

“I think at first you need to recognize that you are in it, that you are being controlled by a script that is being written by a system of values that has little to do with you,” says Breuer. “The only way to understand the way the world works is by understanding how you have been cast in it—the whole metaphor is theatrical.”

The search for one’s message is a theme that can be traced to Breuer’s earlier works, too. In the seminal scene in The Red Horse Animation, the horse stares into the stream wondering what its purpose is. “I think that the idea of searching for one’s message, as in the red horse, is the romantic notion of planning a course to find one’s parable—What does my life mean? What is my parable? I thought I found it in Dante, I thought it was an attempt to try to find the way to a vision of God,” says Breuer.

“I guess that all of this is a nostalgia for not being particularly religious. I wish I was. I work with a lot of Christian singers who have no trouble in believing in spiritual values. I am jealous of this a little bit, and if I can’t come naturally to these values, I am motivated to create them myself—my own spiritual myth. I think that I was brought up to be a romantic, and I was brought up to live in the 12th century in a kind of court of the troubadours in the south of France someplace. This feeling of not quite living in my time motivates me to create a world that I can live in.”

In La Divina Caricatura, the only thing that Rose is in control of is the music. She has a boombox and every time she pushes a button on it, the music changes. Through the music, she becomes the director of the mood of the scenes. What does this control give her, and why did Breuer emphasize this? I found my answer to these questions in the following lines from the play: “‘Adsad—Asat Yoni Jaman Masa’—By your mind and your words you create your Heaven and your Hell.” When I ask Breuer about the music, he tells me, “The image came from a trip to Disney World that I took with one of my sons. The whole park appeared to be leashed to a control mechanism based on kitsch music. As people entered different areas, their movements changed. They appeared to dance to whatever tune was played for them. For Rose this was love, this was her fantasy—a puppet show in her mind.”

The upcoming book of La Divina Caricatura was initially conceived as a graphic novel. This didn’t happen for a number of reasons (“It is all about finding the money—that’s the big puppeteer”), and the book has now taken the form of a collection of scripts with pictures. When a cubist poem on stage becomes a book, what does it lose along the way? A lot, and yet paradoxically, in this case, not too much. I am reminded of what Bonnie Marranca said in Theater of Images, a book that carried the graphic novel version of The Red Horse Animation: “Attending a theatrical performance is always an experience apart from reading a dramatic text; but a play script does generally stand on its own merits as a pleasurable experience, indicating what it is about and usually giving a clue about how it is staged.” This is especially true in the case of La Divina Caricatura. The plays come alive in our imagination, especially in those quiet evenings when we ponder on the meaning of life and the purpose of our struggle to find it.

Lee Breuer brought Bunraku Puppetry to America. When a whole generation of Americans now watch The Lion King on Broadway, they only access the craft on the surface. The spiritual and metaphysical layers remain hidden to them. Breuer’s book gives us a glimpse into these fragmented and dislocated layers that come together to construct a fuller vision of reality. It poses an open question—which, being devoid of an answer, turns on its head and gets asked to the reader. As you read the play with stage directions, music cues, and descriptions of media projected on the screen, the whole hologram comes alive in your imagination. The content, the medium, and the form merge into one metaphor. Every time you read it, you enter it from a different path and walk around it, looking for yourself in it. The play is not just a hologram of Breuer’s life, but of ours, too, if we venture to examine it with our unanswered questions in hand.

Contributor

Avinash Rajendran

Avinash Rajendran is a writer and an engineer. He is currently pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing at The New School. He loves New York and is passionate about Theatre, Philosophy, and Literature.

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