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THEATER : Beckett's Her Hole Card

The La Jolla Playhouse production of 'Happy Days' reunites veteran actress Ruth Maleczech with a key figure in her career. (Oops, please don't use that word.)

August 04, 1996|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

LA JOLLA — Although she's reluctant to admit it, Ruth Maleczech's reputation precedes her. "I don't really have a career," demurs the four-time Obie-winning actress, fresh from a rehearsal, as she sits down to discuss her life in art.

"Careers are when you become more well known and you make more money and you can make more demands. But I do have a body of work. And that is in fact the way I think of it."

Known for her nuanced performances in plays by a range of contemporary writers, from Lee Breuer to Franz Xavier Kroetz, as well as in classics from Samuel Beckett to Shakespeare, Maleczech is among the most widely respected and versatile actresses of her generation working in the theater today.

Her acting "is extreme in many ways," says Michael Greif, La Jolla Playhouse artistic director, who has followed Maleczech's work in New York for more than a decade. "She has great technical precision and makes really bold choices, but it's always informed by a detailed and deep emotional life."

Maleczech--a member of the influential New York-based theater group Mabou Mines, which she founded along with Breuer, JoAnne Akalaitis, Philip Glass and David Warrilow--is in town to play Winnie in the La Jolla Playhouse production of Beckett's "Happy Days," directed by Robert Woodruff and opening next Sunday. It is a difficult role, but the veteran actress, 57, is well prepared for the task. Beckett has been a major figure in her life, particularly in her work with Mabou Mines.

"Other than original works, which is what we do mostly, and except for Kroetz, Beckett is the writer Mabou Mines has been the most involved with," she says. "It's great to know him again."

Part of what's fascinating about Beckett, the actress says, is his relationship to the 20th century.

"He's part of a time [the '50s and '60s] in which the theater itself was changing from more realistic to less realistic," Maleczech says. "And he's one of the people who was instrumental in creating those changes."

Beckett's innovative style also makes his plays particularly challenging for actors.

"Because his writing is so concerned with stripping away rather than a kind of lushness in language, it's difficult to work on his work," Maleczech says. "It's hard to find a way in unless you just throw yourself in there."

The key, she says, is to be exacting: "Especially in 'Happy Days,' it's clearly set out. Pause means one thing, period means another, and dot-dot-dot means another. The precision is part of the challenge, actually."

Even more so for a director, as Maleczech knows from her 1984 staging of "Imagination Dead Imagine" at the Performing Garage in New York, featuring the voice of the late Ruth Nelson.

"As a director," Maleczech says, "you pay a lot more attention to what is the pause, what is the period, what is the comma--what is the exact punctuation, and therefore the rhythm, of the work--because he was very exacting about all those things."

Winnie in "Happy Days," a woman who lives half-buried in a mound, is, to say the very least, an ambiguous character. So conventional character-building strategies won't work.

"Literally, Winnie could be anyone," Maleczech says. "But she can't be anyone, because she speaks in this very broken kind of a way. So if you just speak that way, you learn more things about her than by trying to investigate her psychology.

"It's surprising what you find out about her just by saying it the way Beckett set it out. Sometimes deep things are [revealed] just because of the way it's punctuated."

For instance, Winnie has a tendency to speak discontinuously.

"She's forever stopping and starting all the time, always with great attention and purpose," Maleczech says. "So you feel that if she would just keep going . . . but she can't."

The character's verbal patterns are part of the play's strategy.

"The play itself is not written in a conventional kind of climax-enouement structure. It has peaks and valleys, peaks and valleys. It's more like a musical form," Maleczech explains.

"It's as though the play happens to you, as a performer, rather than that the performer makes the play happen. A lot of it is about getting out of the way. And yet you can't really get out of the way. You have to let the play hit you like a truck. You can't stand on the sidelines and objectify the play."

Maleczech was born in Cleveland to Yugoslavian parents and grew up in the Arizona desert. She came to Los Angeles to attend UCLA, where she majored in theater arts.

After graduating in 1960, Maleczech moved to San Francisco, where she started working with the Actors Workshop and the San Francisco Mime Troupe. She also began collaborating on interdisciplinary performance works with an ad hoc group of artists based at the San Francisco Tape Music Center.

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