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Diary of a Haven-Turned-Hell

Susan Morgan is an arts writer based in Los Angeles

Surrounded by the ruins of a 16th century cloister in this city’s Centro Historico, Ruth Maleczech takes a rehearsal break. As director and scenarist, she has just overseen a technical run-through of “Las Horas de Belen: A Book of Hours,” the most recent collaborative theater work by New York-based theater troupe Mabou Mines, which Maleczech co-founded in 1970 with Lee Breuer, Jo Anne Akalaitis, Philip Glass and David Warrilow.

The company, named for a town in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, is one of the world’s leading avant-garde theater companies, and throughout its nearly 30-year history it has created astonishing stage work that crosses both cultures and disciplines: In “Gospel at Colonus” (1982), the classic tragedy of Oedipus was gloriously retold within the exalted ceremony of an African American gospel service; “Peter and Wendy,” seen last year at L.A.'s Geffen Playhouse, disclosed the keen poignancy of J.M. Barrie’s original story through puppetry, Celtic music, film projections, shadow play and virtuosic narration.

As conceptualized and directed by Maleczech, “Las Horas” lyrically invokes the complex and troubled history of Belen, a sanctuary for women founded in 1683 by Roman Catholic clergy that evolved into one of Mexico’s most notoriously violent prisons. In “Las Horas,” Belen’s layered past is conveyed through a suite of a dozen poems by Cambridge, Mass.-based writer Catherine Sasanov.

Sensitively translated into Spanish by Luz Aurora Pimentel and Alberto Blanco, Sasanov’s harsh, exquisite verses have been translated again, into voluptuous song, by Liliana Felipe, an Argentine-born composer. In performance, Felipe is stunning; dressed in an antique mariachi suit and possessed of a gimlet-eyed grandeur, she accompanies herself on the piano and sings with blazing intensity an original song cycle that draws freely on traditions ranging from the sentimentality of ranchera tunes to the brisk whirl of a waltz, the syncopated rhythm of a danzon to the sacred tones of Gregorian chants.

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“Las Horas” is presented as a vibrant book of hours, a spellbinding account recorded through a synthesis of poetry and music, light and shadow, movement and stillness. A silent woman is played by Jesusa Rodriguez, one of Mexico’s premier theater artists, who is also artistic director and a performer at El Habito, a political cabaret she opened in 1990 in Coyoacan, not far from Frida Kahlo’s legendary Casa Azul. For the performance, Rodriguez wears a shapeless white muslin dress, her hair braided in Tehuantepec style, as she performs silent expressions of subjugation, revenge and fragile desires. On five occasions, the scenes are interrupted by what Maleczech calls “outbursts.” Written in prose by Sasanov, the outbursts are delivered by an actress (Shaula Vega) in contemporary dress. Her voice has a fierce clarity as she unleashes litanies of intolerable fates: nuns who complete five-mile pilgrimages pacing their cells; poor women who die as “mules” crossing the border with drugs hidden inside their bodies.

The production is here at the invitation of Mexico City’s 15th Festival del Centro Historico, an annual pan-cultural celebration developed to revitalize the megalopolis’ dilapidated but still beautiful heart. This world premiere of “Las Horas” took place recently in the chapel of the Claustro de Sor Juana before coming to New York for its current off-Broadway run. Known as the “Tenth Muse,” Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (1651-1695) was a prodigious intellect, a feminist poet who renounced all worldly contact.

In the de-consecrated chapel named for Sor Juana, the tech run-through of “Las Horas” had to adapt to decidedly low-tech conditions. Julie Archer--the inspired visual artist whose set, lighting and puppetry designs for Mabou Mines during the last 20 years have won the accolades of her profession, including American Theatre Wing awards, Obies and most recently the PEW/TCG Theater Artist residency Fellowship--works with admirable and unflappable concentration. By hand, she slowly places leaves, spilled water and a photographic negative of a holy card featuring the Virgin of Guadelupe onto the tray of an overhead projector, casting their projected images against the back wall of the makeshift stage. The ghostly pictures--simple yet haunting--capture the transformative mystery that is pure theater. Meanwhile, extension cords snake across the floor over disused altars and out of windows; a heavy-duty flashlight, held by a steady hand, provides an impressively accurate follow spot.

Although the festival has promised to deliver a portable generator in time for the performance, none has arrived yet (one is finally delivered, true to all backstage dramas, just before the performance). “When we performed at the Moscow Art Theatre,” recalls Maleczech of another production with wry, off-handed amusement, “the electricity had to be grounded with twist ties from garbage bags.” The 1998 tour to Moscow saw Maleczech performing “Hajj,” an intense, mesmerizing 1983 solo work for which she received an Obie Award (like Archer, Maleczech has won awards too numerous to mention and, also like Archer, she will never mention them).

Darkly and intimately designed by Archer, “Hajj” was written and directed by Lee Breuer and is an essential Mabou Mines work: A woman sits at a dressing table, and the world inextricably unfolds. Breuer’s allusive text charts the inescapable routes between past and present and the terrible vulnerability that suffuses hope and despair. Carried by the powerful murmur of Maleczech’s voice and the precision of her tremulous gestures, Breuer’s poetry plummets and shimmers unforgettably.

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In the Mabou Mines collective bio, it’s noted that “the composition of the company is the result of years of shared work in the United States and abroad,” and that “in any given year, five to nine works are presented in New York, or on tour, and many pieces have been performed more than 400 times over periods as long as 10 years.” True to Mabou Mines’ unique traditions, “Las Horas” has been developed collaboratively, over a period of time, in remarkably far-flung places.

“Ruth and I met when we both came to Mexico City, on U.S.-Mexico Creative Artist Cultural Exchange grants, in the fall of ’95,” Sasanov says. “Belen as a subject was Catherine’s idea,” Maleczech admits readily. “I had wanted to do something about the Alameda and [Diego Rivera’s 1947 mural] ‘Suen~o de Una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda’ [Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda].”

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In Rivera’s painting, Mexico’s historical figures stroll through the Alameda--a city park that began as an Aztec marketplace, became a site for the Catholic Church’s autos de fe (the burning of heretics during the Inquisition), was redesigned as a European-style promenade with fountains and gardens for 19th century aristocrats, and is now a people’s park featuring food stands and musicians.

“But because Catherine is such a completely thorough, honorable researcher and had such great thoughts, she turned my head around,” Maleczech says.

“Las Horas” has been developed “on its feet,” through intense short-term residencies that have allowed the artists involved to develop the work collaboratively and over time. In 1997 and ’98, the project received the Rockefeller Foundation’s Multi-Arts Production award, which included one month each year at the foundation’s center in Bellagio, Italy. For 2 1/2 weeks in July 1998, Maleczech and her collaborators continued their work at the Sundance Theatre Lab in Utah.

“I was afraid in the beginning, when we just started on this, and we made the first meeting of everybody in Italy,” Rodriguez says. “But when Catherine read the first poem, I started to cry. It was incredible how she could really feel this city.”

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“This has been a wild thing to work on,” Sasanov says. “Except for the residencies, we’ve all been separated. I would write something and send it to the translator, they would send it back, I’d work on it until we got a residency and then I would hand it over to Liliana.”

“Because theater exists in three dimensions, it can only really be hammered out in a rehearsal room,” notes Robert Blacker, artistic director of the Sundance lab, a program designed to cultivate new theater works. “Ruth has an incredible ability to look critically and take her work to the next step.”

During an open rehearsal at Sundance, “Las Horas” was performed for the first time before an audience of native Spanish speakers. Basic to the piece is the flickering of comprehension that occurs between two languages in translation: Poems written in English are sung in Spanish, the English text--sometimes broken into phrases--is projected, scrolled against a “screen” constructed of white rebozos.

“I wanted the Spanish to have a true poetic voice,” Maleczech explains. “We were very moved at Sundance when people actually thought that the poems had been originally written in Spanish.”

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Maleczech takes a long, well-considered pause. The softness of her demeanor--her long, hennaed hair and open, generous manner--seems to charmingly belie the sharp brilliance of her intellect.

“I thought that the language would be the hardest part. But it isn’t,” she says. “The difficulty and great possibility [of making work collaboratively] isn’t the bilingual or the binational aspects. It’s the bi-aesthetical. Artists work deeply in the lives that they live--whether we are living in Mexico, Minneapolis, Guatemala, Los Angeles, New York. When the audience sees the piece, they will essentially go through the process we went through--hearing the words, seeing the images being made--and experiencing a new place."*

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“Las Horas de Belen: A Book of Hours” continues through today at ToRoNaDa PS 122. (212) 477-5288.

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