The Hidden Treasure of American Acting

At 81, Alvin Epstein's trying something classic and new

OKay, Theater History students, today's quiz has three questions, but only one correct answer.

(1) Which American actor has played leading roles opposite Orson Welles, Bert Lahr, Diahann Carroll, Linda Lavin, Meryl Streep, Cherry Jones, and Sting? (2) Which director famous for staging Shakespeare and Brecht is celebrated for his acting in plays by that un-Shakespearean, un-Brechtian writer Samuel Beckett? (3) What famous mime has been lauded across America for his singing and won an Obie award for his performance in an opera? Stumped? Let's cancel the quiz and face the fact: Alvin Epstein is not a household word.

That, however, may be about to change. At 81, actor-singer-mime-director Epstein is tackling one of the theater's most strenuous jobs, the title role in Shakespeare's King Lear. And since the production, which opened at La MaMa Annex on June 19, was originally presented last fall in Boston, by a fledgling company called Actors' Shakespeare Project, he arrives already surrounded by a nimbus of rave reviews. With only a smattering of television credits and an even sparser list of film appearances, Epstein represents what it means in America to devote your life to the theater. Barely a blip on the mass audience's radar, he's one of our culture's hidden treasures, a leading figure among the working professionals who believe in and live for their art.

Actor-singer-mime-director Epstein as Lear
photo: Carolle Photography
Actor-singer-mime-director Epstein as Lear

Born in the Bronx and now living in Brooklyn, Epstein isn't a celebrity in part because, in the late 1960s, he moved away from New York. Most of the experience that's built up his extraordinary stature was achieved far from the glaring eye of its media machine. If his talents weren't so exceptional, you'd say his career typified the artistry the resident-theater movement was created to foster.

But then, Alvin was an exception long before he became an actor. Son of a cultured, left- leaning Jewish doctor, he enriched his art-loving adolescence with a fascination for the lofty ideas of the great stage designer and theorist Edward Gordon Craig (1872–1966), who, while the theater was still in thrall to post-Ibsen naturalism, had preached a heightened, semi-abstract renewal of the classical open stage. The obsession started with an 18th-birthday present from a schoolmate: Craig's The Theatre Advancing. The book-length manifesto bowled Alvin over, describing, as he puts it, "the theater I'd dreamed of that I didn't know I was dreaming of." He started collecting Craig's works. Even being drafted only fueled his preoccupation: Stationed in England, he scoured London's used-book shops for Craigiana, hauling his precious finds across Europe in an army duffel. One day in Paris, the owner of a librairie du théâtre asked if he'd like to meet Craig, and held the panicked draftee's arm with one hand while telephoning with the other. "I didn't know he was in Paris," says Alvin. "I didn't know he was alive. It was like being asked if I wanted to meet God."

Craig turned out to be a cheerfully beneficent deity. Alvin became a frequent visitor and unofficial assistant. By then, the young soldier was a theater student in earnest, at the university set up for G.I.'s in Biarritz. Shipped home, Alvin enrolled briefly at Fordham, where much of the Biarritz faculty had migrated, but soon migrated himself to study with Martha Graham. After a year, he says, "I realized she was turning me into a dancer." Which somehow wasn't the theater beyond theater that filled his Craigian dreams. He had glimpsed that theater, he thought, in a dazzling French film, then the talk of all intelligent cinephiles: Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert's Children of Paradise, featuring Paris's reigning stage star Jean-Louis Barrault as the 19th-century mime Deburau. Returning to France, Alvin told Craig that he wanted to study mime. "Are you serious?" Craig asked. "I'll introduce you to Etienne Decroux."

Decroux (1898–1991), the revered "father of modern mime," who had coached the young Barrault in the art, was just then restarting his war-shuttered École de Mime. Alvin became one of its first pupils. The skills he was learning from Decroux didn't distract him from noticing the remarkable proficiency of one classmate, a gangly youngster from Strasbourg called Marcel Marceau, whose rocket-like rise to mime stardom would shortly jump-start Alvin's own career.

Before that could happen, Epstein's odyssey took a further unexpected turn: Deciding that he didn't want to spend his life miming anymore than he did dancing, he accepted a job as mime teacher and actor with Habima, the national theater of the newly founded state of Israel. From 1951 to '54, he acquired enough fluency in Hebrew to appear convincingly in 11 roles—one of them the Fool in Lear, his first onstage brush with Shakespeare's towering play. But as with Graham and Decroux, he learned at Habima that he also didn't want to spend his life acting outside his own country and his native language. Coming back to New York, he learned what American actors do most of the time: audition. Then, one day in 1955, he strolled over to the Phoenix Theatre, where his former classmate Marceau was about to make his American debut. Meaning only to buy a ticket, Alvin was astounded when the Phoenix's co-founder Norris Houghton grabbed him, shouting, "Get inside! They're waiting for you." Each piece in Marceau's solo show was (and is to this day) introduced by two assistants, posed in a tableau vivant, holding a card with the piece's title. One assistant, carrying the card of a political party the U.S. State Department didn't like, had been denied a visa. So Alvin made his New York debut as half of this présentation des cartes, sharing in Marceau's cascade of rave reviews. While posing in Marceau's tableaux, Alvin read one afternoon for a famous director, expecting nothing, then headed home to the Bronx. His father, opening the apartment door with a look of shocked reverence, said, "Orson Welles just phoned you." About to direct and play Lear at City Center, Welles wanted Alvin for his Fool.

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