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First NYC major revival of "The Beard" by Michael McClure
Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid confront each other in a blue velvet eternity. Iconic play of the 1960s dramatizes the struggle for union between flesh and the spirit. Directed by Lawrence Sacharow, Obie-winning director who staged "Three Tall Women"

Eva Patton in "The Beard"
November 18 to December 5 (original run was 9/23 to 10/10)
La MaMa E.T.C. (First Floor Theater), 74A East Fourth Street
(presented by La MaMa E.T.C. in association with River Arts Repertory)
Th-Sat at 8:00 pm, Sun at 3:30 pm (no show Thanksgiving)
$12, (212) 475-7710
To share an outstanding production with a wider audience, La MaMa will bring back its first show of this season, "The Beard" by Michael McClure directed by Lawrence Sacharow, for a return engagement November 18 to December 5. La MaMa initially mounted the work in its second-floor Club September 23 to October 10, 1999 as the first major NY revial of this milestone work of avant-garde theater. The production will be restaged in La MaMa's First Floor Theater for the reprise.

In this work of great raw power, Harlow and Billy are trapped together in a blue velvet eternity. She challenges him saying, "Before you can pry any secrets from me, you must first find the real me! Which one will you pursue?" Their ensuing dialogue, while seemingly repetitive, simple and lewd, speaks to the nature of seduction, attraction and the perverse temperament between a man and a woman.

Playwright Michael McClure has testified in remembrances that the play was an outgrowth of a visual art project he created in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury section in 1965, which depicted these two much-mythicized people as opponents on a boxing poster. The poster's text was a poem in "beast language" ("LOVE LION, LIONESS, GAHHR THY ROOH, GRAHEEER") which foreshadowed the emotional underscore, if not the dialogue, of the play-to-be. The unusual poster was at least partially inspired by his acquaintence with Norman Mailer, who had developed an avid interest in boxing at the time. McClure remembers sitting in front of the poster, looking out on the western sky and the ocean, and feeling that Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow had magically entered his consciousness and were acting out a play.

The resulting work, born in the heat of inspiration, was near-perfect unto itself, defying re-writes. It debuted modestly in a single performance at the San Francisco Actors Workshop (where the artistic director, fearful for the institutions's "acceptable image," cut its run short). Soon thereafter, it was produced--with a dazzling light show--for one performance at Billy Graham's Fillmore Auditorium. (The art, poetry and rock music communities were one in those days, thus the "music scene" connection. Graham, warned that presenting this "obscene" play would cost him his license, also cancelled its run.) Subsequent engements were also cut short, either by outright police repression or by promises of reprisals against the theaters. The play so threatened the California "establishment," fighting for its bearings on the verge of a sexual and cultural revolution, that it was continually raided, its performers arrested for violations of state obscenity laws. Performances were packed with both intellectuals and cops with cameras and tape recorders. The controversy, in which the ACLU defended the play, seemed to pit an artwork about Eros and the divine against a repressive establishment that was bombing fishing villages in Southeast Asia.

During the Hollywood production, arrests on 14 consecutive nights became a media circus. The play was denounced by Charlton Heston and Nancy Reagen, among others, and a state law against obscene plays which named The Beard" specifically was rejected in the Criminal Committee by only one vote. Now it is said that "The Beard" cases were to the theater what "Howl" was to poetry and "Naked Lunch" was to the novel. The notoriety of the 1960s has turned to respect today: a photo of "The Beard" will be included in the Whitney Museum's "The American Century: Art & Culture, Pt. 2," which charts the dynamism of the decades between 1950 and 2000 by focusing on the avant-garde.

The first New York production of "The Beard" opened in 1969 (the same year as "Hair") at the Evergreen Theater, featuring Billie Dixon and Richard Bright. It was directed by Rip Torn and earned Obies for Dixon and Torn. The play, which had been born in San Francisco's rock-flushed "art world," recaptured the Fillmore feeling with a huge light show preceding the play and cages of doves and ferrets stacked closely in the lobby to set off an adrenaline rush.

La MaMa's 1990s interpretation will be directed by Lawrence Sacharow, who received the Lucille Lortel award for his direction of Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Three Tall Women." Sacharow first made his mark with "The Concept," a play performed by ex-addicts from Daytop Village, that originated in 1969 and was revived in 1986, both times at La MaMa. This amazing theatrical event--with recovering drug addicts telling their own stories--made Off-Broadway history and played command performances at the White House and United Nations. Sacharow created "When the Bough Breaks," a similar theatrical work featuring the parents of drug addicts, for La MaMa in 1991. He has also directed Beckett's "Not I" and "Footfalls" at La MaMa, and received an Obie for his staging of Len Jenken's "Five of Us" there. His last La MaMa project was an operatic adaptation of P.D. Ouspensky's mystical novel, "The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin," with music by Peter Gordon and libretto by Constance Congdon. He is presently working on a new play by Edward Albee based on the life of Frederico Garcia Lorca, called "The Lorca Play," planned to open Off-Broadway in February.

Playwright Michael McClure has been, over the past four decades, at the center of the "New American" artistic storm as a major innovative poet, playwright, novelist, lyricist and environmentalist. His other plays include the Obie-winning "Josephine and the Mouse Singer. He is currently a professor at CCAC in Oakland, CA and performs his poetry with Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek.

The production features Eva Patton as Jean Harlow and Leo Marks ("Elevator Repair Service") as Billy the Kid. Set design is by Beowulf Boritt, costume design is by Tracey Dorman, lighting design is by Jane Cox and original music by Daniel Levy is performed by Bohdan Hilash. "The Beard" is being presented by La MaMa E.T.C. in association with River Arts Repertory, a company whose artistic director is Lawrence Sacharow and which operated for 14 years in Woodstock, NY presenting a mixture of classics and new plays. [NYTW]

Related article: La MaMa sets 1999-2000 season schedule

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