Beware,” said Ghelderode, “of poetry that announces itself with placards.” Such warnings have never stopped Lee Breuer of Mabou Mines, whose loudly announced visions of stage poetry, in their post-post-Romantic grandeur, go way beyond the simple cardboard signs that Ghelderode meant. The great thing about Breuer is that, fairly often in his uphill-and-down career, he has created theater pieces so genuinely grand in substance and imagination that their announcement has been justified. But there have also been less happy occasions, when the substance did not justify the gigantic means Breuer employed, and the result was more announcement than poetry. And so it was with Red Beads, a tiny, gnomic theater poem, with a text by Breuer, that might have generated half an hour’s worth of genuine theatrical intensity if produced with three actors on a bare stage.
Instead, Breuer staged his ballad-like little verse tale of the rivalry between a dying mother and a daughter coming of age (based on a story by Polina Klimovitskaya) on a vast scale that might have suited Homer or the Norse sagas. On the Skirball Center’s big stage, the three principals (mother, father, and daughter) were abetted by three acting doubles, three vocal soloists, and a chorus, along with extensive flying effects, a panoply of puppets designed by Basil Twist, almost continuous music by Ushio Torikai, and what seemed like endless miles of billowing, ectoplasmic drapery. The grandeur was defensible to some degree: Though rarely exciting, the piece kept up a constant level of visual beauty, and Torikai’s music, ranging through every means from pitched percussive sounds to lush orchestral rhapsodizing and thorny polytonality, was impressive in its sustained quality. It was great, too, to see a piece in which such enormous resources were employed poetically instead of for Broadway marketing purposes. One didn’t feel betrayed, only frustrated that an artist of Breuer’s stature had so mismatched the scale of his materials vis-à-vis his ambitions.