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Judith Malina’s ‘Jewish Anarchist Play’

Judith Malina’s ‘Jewish Anarchist Play’

In retelling the biblical Korach story, the actor, director and theater co-founder brings together a lifetime of lessons in experimental drama and politics.

It wasn’t Judith Malina who made one of the Bible’s most notorious villains into the unlikeliest hero of this theatrical season.

It was the Mishna.

Malina, of course, is, with her late husband Julian Beck, the co-founder of the Living Theatre, which, among its other distinctions, lays claim to the title of the nation’s oldest alternative theater company, tracing its birth to 1947. Malina and Beck were also, according to the Cambridge Guide to the American Theatre, “the prophets of the burgeoning theatrical experiment that was to explode during the 1960s.”

Now, at 84, Malina is the playwright and director of “Korach,” which runs at the Living Theatre in its Lower East Side location thorough Feb. 28. Ritualistically stylized and viscerally raw, the play pares the stage-work signature of the Living Theatre to its essence. It is clearly the product of a very personal passion. And after her involvement in nearly 100 productions through the Living’s long years, it is also the work Malina unhesitatingly calls “my Jewish play.”

She amends her remark: “My Jewish anarchist play. Korach is history’s first recognized anarchist.”

In retelling the familiar story of Korach as it unfolds through a handful of verses in the Book of Numbers, Malina plumbed Jewish sacred commentaries, chiefly the Mishna and its midrashic citations. Though biblical accounts of the wandering from Egypt seethe with tales of Israelite insubordination, dutifully checked off in the play, it was Korach who led his followers to outright insurrection, challenging Moses’ claim of divinely ordained rule over the people with the ringing cry: “We are all holy!”

Every yeshiva student knows the outcome of Korach’s thunderous heresy. Under God’s directorial hand, in a sudden blast of cosmic theater, the very earth splits open and swallows Korach and his followers whole.

In stark movement and rhetoric, declaimed and sung, Malina’s play, with its large cast of 30, hues closely to the duel’s bare-bones dynamics. In something of the style of a tragic Greek chorus, inflamed Korach, played by Jerry Gorsinick, with his followers lurch, literally, at Silas Inches’ Moses and his camp, which pushes determinedly back. God exercises his wrath, finishing Korach and his revolt — but not the drama. The future, seen in a band of angels, exerts its own mercies, opening a window of balm to Korach’s descendants who had become sacred psalmists, soothing the ears of a jealous God.

“Everybody loves musicians,” drolly notes Malina. And it’s all in the Talmud, uncovered by Malina in her research for the play, which proved no more than lightly daunting, thanks to the her experience growing up in a rabbinical family.

As previously explored in her published diaries and works of verse, like “Poems of a Wandering Jewess,” Malina’s personal story begins with the migration of her father, Max Malina, a Conservative rabbi, from Germany with young Judith and his wife Rosel, a fervent closet actress, to become a founder of New York’s German Jewish Congregation. Even before her conception, she says, her fate was preordained, sealed by her parents’ vow to bear a daughter who would carry on Mrs. Malina’s never-fulfilled stage career.

From infancy, Malina was home-schooled by Rosel in elocution, singing and movement. She proved an eager pupil, regaling local synagogue and school groups in small recitals, with a stint in the Yiddish chorus in a Maurice Schwartz play. In her teens came her breakout hour: at the height of World War II, at the historic emergency mass rally to save endangered European Jews held at the old Madison Square Garden, Malina recited a short poem, written in German, in the voice of a defiant Jewish child. It brought down the house.

“All my mother said was, ‘You didn’t bring enough handkerchiefs,’” recalls Malina.

Telling the story from a chair in her Lower East Side apartment, she repeats her performance of seven decades earlier, a precursor to all the charged political theater to come, replete with the quintessential Malina complement of brimming voice and emphatic hand gestures.

Of her mother Malina says: “Back then it was unthinkable to be both a rebbetzin and an actress. Today a Jewish woman cannot only be an actress but a rebbe, too.”

Her parents’ adoration faced one test the day 12-year-old Malina came home and announced she was a pacifist, as she remains today, with the belief that Hitler could be disarmed by the power of love.

“My father was not too happy,” she remembers.

At her mother’s instigation Malina fell under the tutelage of Erwin Pescator, the foremost interpreter in the U.S. of the radically agitprop “epic theater” philosophy of Bertolt Brecht, at the Dramatic Workshop, alongside the very young Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte and Elaine Stritch.

Referring to two of the reigning acting teachers of the day and the choice then facing a young performer, Malina, explains: “Stella Adler would say, ‘Quieter, more refined,’ Pescator would say, ‘Louder, stronger.’”

In throwing her allegiance to the latter, Malina cemented a philosophy of acting that was to inform all her future work and life. (Malina has written a book about Pescator scheduled for publication this year.)

At l7, Malina met and fell in love with Julian Beck, a precocious young Abstract Expressionist artist with sketchy knowledge of the theater. Malina gladly helped fill in the gaps, and was delighted to discover the student, a voraciously quick study, becoming the master.

“What he taught me was very simple,” she says. “Make it personal, and make it true to yourself.”

In a few short years Beck and Malina started the Living Theatre, a citadel of emotionally direct expression and, as the postwar anti-radical witch hunts were mobilizing, anarchist-pacifist politics. Its mission, years before the words “Off-Broadway,” never mind “Off-Off-Broadway,” found their place on arts listing pages, was to provide an alternative to the commercial restrictions of mainstream theater. Its credo, from Beck as recounted by Malina: “Everyone is capable of sublime art. Our job is to bring it out.”

The Becks found a stage at Greenwich Village’s Cherry Lane Theatre, bringing works by Cocteau, Eliot, Stein and William Carlos Williams to American audiences for the first time. Over the years Brecht’s “Antigone” proved to be the theater’s longest-running hit, while original plays like “The Connection” and “The Brig” won major awards and have become part of the American drama canon.

“Paradise Now,” a confrontational celebration of ‘60s counterculture and still the Living Theatre’s best-known work, scandalized the public with naked cast members wading into the audience, who themselves were not discouraged from disrobing. A reprise of this up-close cast-audience interaction, a celebration of opposites uniting, occurs at the end of “Korach” too, sans nudity.

Catching fire, the Living Theatre began a routine cycle of tours in Europe, touting its members’ brash provocateurship both on stage and off.

“I’ve been in jail in 12 countries,” notes Malina.

The Becks brought their own brand of street theater to political actions everywhere. Their staunch anti-authority pacifism spelled opposition to LBJ and Ho Chi Minh equally, testing the amity of some elements of the Vietnam years’ antiwar left.

The outlaw life was the life of the Living Theatre, especially back home in New York, with countless evictions by landlords and bureaucrats, until the theater found its current and, hopefully, permanent roost on Clinton Street.

After Julian Beck’s untimely death in 1985, Malina found a new partner in theater and marriage in the much younger director and playwright Hanon Reznikov, until Reznikov’s own early passing some years later. Today, Malina runs the shop with staff and cast, continuing to attract fresh young talents eager to partake of the living Theatre’s historical allure and still vibrant performance culture.

Through it all, Malina remains best known to the world at large for her portrayal of Granny in the darkly farcical 1991 movie “The Addams Family,” a Hollywood role well suited to her subversive acting gifts.

The providential nature of the Living Theatre’s current production was underscored at the Jan. 13 performance of “Korach.” A ringing cowbell, a trademark of the La MaMa, the Living’s longtime avant-garde theater friendly rival across town, signaled the opening of the house. To the audible gasps of patrons and staffers, it was then announced that La MaMa founder Ellen Stewart had died earlier that day.

For Malina, the “Korach” episode, the subject of some of her earlier poetry, is the stuff both of drama and politics, in its most fundamentally etched battle lines.

“Moses was building a nation,” she says. “To do that he had to destroy all dissidents. He had to destroy Korach. His position is first we have to be a nation. Then we can be holy.”

Despite the Mishnaic account of divine clemency for Korach’s descendants as adapted by Malina, the prevailing judgment of Jewish tradition freezes Moses and Korach in eternal enmity, a position finding amen-sayers today. Malina cites Elie Wiesel, who declared Korach three steps below Hitler.

In the play, the primal conflict between profane authority and the sacred individual finds more modern reiteration in brief films projected onto the stage floor. One depicts the 1921 Makhno anarchist upsurge in the Ukraine, crushed by Lenin’s Bolsheviks. Another recaps another doomed anarchist uprising in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War of the l930s.

Books for sale in the Living Theatre’s lobby show photographs of the young Malina as a haunting dark beauty. A hunched back the most telling sign of her age, the Malina of today eschews the exotic 1950s makeup, her startlingly small frame wrapped around a core of beatific energy — surely, the visitor can’t help but think, a little-diminished version of the youthful dynamo who was half the team that significantly redefined what we now take for granted as theater in its many living forms.

Very early in “Korach,” following a quick vignette of a small girl skipping to the chant “Moses disposes…,” still another projected film presents the radical firebrand Emma Goldman, played, inevitably, by Malina, framing the argument of the play to follow. Anarchist Goldman, through the voice of anarchist Malina, then concludes her brief oration with her famous words: “We will lose every battle but the last.”

“Korach” is running at the Living Theatre (21 Clinton St.), through Feb. 28. Wednesday-Saturday at 8 p.m. For tickets, $20, call (212) 352-0255.

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