In the lobby of the Living Theatre, before a recent performance of Mysteries . . . and Smaller Pieces, a young German man chatted with a few cast members. In passable English, he explained that he had first seen the Living Theatre in Berlin at the age of six, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. “It was euphoria, that time,” he said, “and the Living Theatre was a symbol of the euphoria, of artist liberty.” But is the Living Theatre now more than a symbol? Is it still producing significant work, or just coasting on its ’60s street cred? The enthusiastic reviews of their last performance, The Brig, argued for continued relevance. Their latest remount, Mysteries . . . and Smaller Pieces, suggests otherwise.
First developed in 1964 during the Living’s European exile, Mysteries consists of activities and exercises inspired by both the Eleusinian Mysteries and Antonin Artaud, with some Brecht, Grotowski, and Chaikin thrown in for good measure. But the chants, wails, and yogic stretches that compose the piece, revolutionary 40 years ago, now seem prosaic, if not faintly embarrassing—particularly an extended re-creation of Artaud’s “The Theater and the Plague.” (In my notes, I see that I’ve written: “Everyone’s dead. Yay!”) As this last act illustrates, it’s nostalgia rather than anything bubonic that plagues this troupe.