Pretentious Pigs Don’t Fly; Barbara Cook Simply Soars

Lee Breuer’s epic investigation of the artist as a pig, Ecco Porco , is the kind of experimental piece that gives avant-garde theater a bad name, which is usually fine by any self-respecting member of the avant-garde. Mr. Breuer and his renowned, award-winning Mabou Mines troupe have been confusing and infuriating people for over 30 years. “It’s very chaotic,” Mr. Breuer’s leading actress, Ruth Maleczech, explained to The Times about the demanding Ecco Porco . “That’s not a bad thing. That’s a good thing.”

Is it? Is chaos a good thing?

It depends how good the chaos is. Ms. Maleczech–a founding member of Mabou Mines with Philip Glass and JoAnne Akalaitis–is a wonderful, warm actress, and she plays, among much, a South Indian Holy Cow named Sri Moo Pahamahamsa. Consider this pronouncement of Sri Moo:

“Remarkably,” the cow announces at the start, “here at the shrink’s swan song, I.S.S. [Institute for the Science of Soul] has hammered out the first new synthesis of scholastic philosophy since Aquinas–the universal neo-neural Darwinist mind-only post-performative popular front. But which ‘mind only’? Have we not a triune brain?”

All clear?

But then, it’s not meant to be. We’re in some kind of madhouse, or therapy institute for the soul, where a division of Animations Anonymous has a 12-step therapy program for people terminally addicted to performing. Would that there were one.

One of the leading therapy patients is a dog named Rose, who’s played vocally by four actresses. The dog, a spaniel tuned into a Walkman, is a Bunraku rod puppet that’s either a woman who’s treated like a dog, or a dog who thinks she’s a woman. Either way, we do not find the theme of Woman as Dog–which grows out of Mr. Breuer’s previous doggy piece, entitled An Epidog –too fresh an idea in the first place. The dog Rose is infatuated by an imagined or real romance with a junkie named John Ham Jones, portrayed by another puppet and four actresses. Interspecies love is but one of the themes, as well as pseudo Dante-esque spiritual journeys, Disney, transgendered chickens, Marge Simpson, cosmic metaphysics, movie-making, drama therapy, subconscious projection, Jungian archetypes, the sinful ways of Hollywood, the joys of tantric sex, the adventures of an ant and Bodhisattva Quan Yin in her 2,113th incarnation.

But there’s more (and more, and more … ). While the tragic stature of Mr. Breuer’s leading actor, the 75-year-old Frederick Neumann, lends the pig-artist-hero a little conventional dignity, the Kafkaesque Porco also morphs into Truman Capote, Orson Welles and the Russian theater revolutionary Vsevolod Meyerhold, who also becomes, if you please–and if you can take it–a Hasidic W.C. Fields playing Joseph K. And where, pray, does that get us?

It gets us to the indulgent, chaotic mess of unintended parody and the lunatic fringe. I think, with regrets, that Ecco Porco takes us back to the future of pretentious avant-garde theater a generation ago, when psychobabble was in vogue, the tortured artist was a typical downtown theme along with camp, tantric sex was new (and sexier than here), and Warren Beatty–of all Mr. Breuer’s tired targets–was taken seriously enough by some to be satirized.

The Bunraku puppets, each brought to hypnotic life by three puppeteers who are more like anonymous, manipulative gods, are the most troubling–and interesting–human beings onstage.

But too much of Ecco Porco is familiar and sloppily formless. This isn’t good chaos. It’s an unedited, arty muddle. There are long stretches when the piece wobbles indulgently on the private, as if an audience isn’t even necessary. The multi-identities of the Nietzschean Porco–particularly in the case of the misunderstood, crucified geniuses Welles and Meyerhold–are nothing more than a neurotic self-portrait in art martyrdom of the ever-modest Mr. Breuer.

The director Breuer is also the dramatist, and he loves words as a narcissist loves his own reflection. Small wonder he could be seen sitting among the audience in the intimate studio space at P.S. 122, mouthing the dialogue of his own pretentious script as the actors spoke his words onstage. What rambling, nonsensical words they are! Here’s our hero, Porco:

“The real thing about reality is it’s whatever I choose to measure it by. Now suppose I choose to measure it by the cognitive neurobiology of the Christian Coalition. According to the Christian Coalition, the Creator is Father to the world. You are all my children, and now you have brought a class-action suit, naming among others me–that you have been abused …. Now let’s be real. Is the creator of this whole divina caricatura guilty of child abuse, does our Father here need a good lawyer–”

Stop! Please stop! But there’s reams and reams of this stuff–on and unstoppably on, until after four hours we were at last set free from Ecco Porco . As Samuel Beckett put it: “All’s well that ends.”

The best thing Mr. Breuer could do is peep outside into bright shining daylight and then go see Barbara Cook immediately. Mr. Breuer certainly possesses no snobbery toward popular culture. Nor did the greatest theater innovators. For all of Grotowski’s naked simplicity, he was influenced by the circus; the austere Beckett’s love of vaudeville is as well-known as Brecht’s debt to cabaret. In his avant-garde way, Lee Breuer is trying to tell a love story with Ecco Porco , but he is unforgivably incoherent. Whereas Barbara Cook, in her inimitable way, is singing a love story, but she is simply and unpretentiously beautiful–the way certain spirits, singing to spirits, are always beautiful, clear and inexpressibly moving.

By now, you will have heard of Ms. Cook’s triumph in her Mostly Sondheim concert at Lincoln Center. Her homage to Mr. Sondheim (including the songs he wishes he wrote) showed us why she’s his preeminent interpreter. She makes it all look so easy! Her gifts appear effortless, her relaxed, motherly stage presence embracing the house. And, in turn, we gladly embrace her back. She’s timeless.

At 74, she defies time. She might negotiate a few notes more carefully now, but she has it all–musicianship, of course, clarity, phrasing, a sure touch and feel for the mood of every lyric. She knows how to act a song, but she isn’t theatrical. It isn’t that she sings as well as someone half her age. (Other singers can do that, though they’re few.)

Her secret is that she’s completely and unpretentiously artless. Ms. Cook has found the highest peaks of utter naturalness. The air there isn’t rarefied, but very pure. This supreme “artless art” goes beyond all we know. Some legendary dancers have had it, very few actors. It simply and purely is . It’s why Ms. Cook is both timeless and miraculously ageless. And it’s why she can still deliver an Irving Berlin romantic ballad with the swoon of a first big love, and a late Sondheim love song with the heart of one who still longs for it to mend.

She couldn’t be arty to save her life.