Volume 19 Issue 50 | April 27 - May 3, 2007

Downtown Express photo by Geoff Smith

Judith Malina and Hanon Reznikov in the new Lower East Side home of the Living Theater, which opens with a revival of Kenneth H. Brown’s now even more relevant 1963 shocker.

Back in ‘The Brig’ with the Living Theater

By Jerry Tallmer

The last time Judith Malina directed “The Brig,” which was 44 years ago, she put the actors through sheer hell, U.S. Marine Corps punishment style. With the cast’s assent, more or less.

This time — for the production which on Thursday, April 26, opens the new 21 Clinton Street home of the Living Theatre — the rehearsal process has been, in Ms. Malina’s words, “still very rigorous but without the punitive points.” She means the double-time and triple-time work penalties, up on 14th Street in 1963, for lateness at rehearsal, absence from rehearsal, eating during rehearsals, smoking outside a smoking zone, failure to pass clothing inspection, loss of clothing, loss of props, lack of seriousness, general “misconduct,” or any other infraction of rules.

The punishments in “The Brig,” a play by ex-Marine Kenneth H. Brown about an Abu Ghraib for miscreant Marines four decades before Abu Ghraib was even thought of, are somewhat harsher. The barren, soulless set is an external and internal prison compound, subdivided by white lines and chicken wire. The prisoners have no names, just numbers. Here’s a taste:
EIGHT: Sir, Prisoner Number Eight requests permission to cross the white line, sir.
LINTZ [a guard]: Cross, Eight. Whoa, Eight. How long have you been a guest at my hotel?
EIGHT: Twelve days, sir.
LINTZ: And you still don’t know that you have to do a military about-face when you change direction?
EIGHT: Yes, I know it, sir.

LINTZ: What is this “I know it” business. You answer: “Yes, sir” or “No, sir” when you talk to me. Is that clear, maggot?
EIGHT: Yes, sir.
LINTZ: Can’t hear you.
EIGHT [screaming] Yes, sir … [He begins weeping silently] …
GRACE [another guard, menacingly]: Tonight is your night, Eight …Five, get out here …Did some little bird tell you to put on your field jacket, my little field mouse?
FIVE: No, sir.
GRACE: Then what the hell are you wearing it for? … You go into the head, kneel in front of the toilet named Two, and tell the toilet what you have done. Is that clear?
FIVE: Yes, sir.
Further disciplinary instruction in that “hotel” ranges from a sock in the belly — or two, or three — to being jammed for an hour or two into a clanging garbage pail.

In between all the verbal, psychological, and/or physical brutality, the “maggots” in this brig spend much of each day at rigid military attention, their eyes glued on one page or another of their individual copies of “The Guidebook for Marines,” a work akin to the Bible for Malina herself in directing this play. Actually her Bible No. 2 — the first, in the case of “The Brig,” having been deity Antonin Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty.”

“This time around I didn’t think the punishment [for rehearsal violations] should be involuntary,” says Judith. “So if any of this new lot of actors objected, we wouldn’t do punishments, and two of the actors did object.”

The play that shocked New York back in 1963, and other parts of the nation and world in subsequent months and years, had arrived in the mail at Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theatre out of nowhere. More exactly, out of Brooklyn, the birthplace of ex-Marine Kenneth H. Brown who had indeed spent time in such a brig. One other member of the original cast had been in the Marines.

“Chic Ciccarelli, who played the Brig Warden,” Ms. Malina writes in a “Directing the Brig” memoir for the 1965 Hill and Wang edition of the play, “ … remembered with touching and terrible closeness the cold, hard exhilaration of the [close-order] drill. Before each rehearsal the company drilled half an hour; after the lunch break, another half hour. We cleared the lobby of The Living Theatre, and there on the tile floors we marched endless hours. Startled ticket buyers often entered in the middle of the drill master’s angry scolding. It was not the polite tone of a theatrical director discussing the character with the actor, it was Ciccarelli screaming: ‘Get your head up, you lousy maggot!’  ”

Two members of the current cast, Judith said the other day, have in fact been in the Marines. She didn’t think either one had been in a brig. None of the original players are in this one, of course; they’re now in their 60s if not their 70s. Or they’re gone.

“But Steve Israel [Steven Ben Israel], who in five years played every guard and every maggot, has been here drilling everybody, and Ken Brown has been around a lot, and George Bartenieff” — the first Prisoner Number Eight — “occasionally drops by.”

These on-stage maggots do have names, outside of the brig, off the stage, and those names are: Albert Lamont, Anwan Ward, Brad Burgess, Bradford Rosenbloom, Brent Bradley, Gene Ardor, Isaac Scranton, Jade Rothman, Jeff Nash, John Kohan, Johnson Anthony, Joshua Striker-Roberts, Kesh Baggan, Louis Williams, Morteza Tavakoff.

“A wonderful bunch,” says their director, “and I’m very proud of them. These young people have even more of a rapid understanding than we did of the link between politics and art. This is a wonderful time but a terrible time. If you read the newspapers, a horrible time.

“Bush, joosh, moosh,” says the bouncy, fiery, forever dramatic 80-year-old Judith Malina, theatrical high priestess of not just art-for-art’s-sake but art-for-harsh-reality’s-sake. Husband Julian Beck, her lifelong companion in arts and arms for 45 years — all those years of being driven from venue to venue, punctuated with a bang! when the feds in the summer of 1969 busted 14th Street (for ostensible tax delinquencies) in the midst of the run of, yes, “The Brig” — was taken from her, and from us, bitterly too soon, in 1985.

Three years later she and tall young Hanon Reznikov, a writing/acting member of the company, were married. It is Judith and Hanon who now, at long last, are about to open a spanking new 130-seat Living Theatre in a high-tech rebuilt structure on a very old — you might say quaint — mom-and-pop-store block of the Lower East Side. Hanon is producer of the play she directs.

The money for all this, including living quarters for Judith and Hanon?

It came from Judith’s sale a year or two ago of the big old West End Avenue apartment at 99th Street that had once been Julian’s parents, and then Judith’s and Julian’s, and then Judith and Hanon’s.

“I spent my fortune to make this happen,” says indomnitable Judith Malina. “Fifty years I spent on that corner. Fifty years!

“Jesus Christ, I’m glad to get out. Finally we’re where we belong.”

Sir, Prisoner Number 00 requests permission to cross Houston Street, sir. To see a play a short distance down the block at 21 Clinton — a play the feds shut down one summer night in ’69, sir. Sir, it’s about maggots. Sir, you’re in it too, sir. Sir, you could call (212) 352-3101, or you could just follow me, sir. As soon as I get out of this garbage can, sir. Sir, thank you, sir. Semper fi!

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