Live from the Vault

Among the many theatrical events that La MaMa is hosting this Fall, one holds special interest for those of us working on our archival catalog project: a play reading series called “From the Vault: A Celebration of Classic La MaMa Scripts.” The series is the brainchild of longtime La MaMa-ite George Ferencz (a resident director from 1982-2008), and presents plays from La MaMa’s earliest years—the years that we are focusing on in our Pushcart Catalog. This series has, so far, showcased Julie Bovasso’s “Schubert’s Last Serenade” (which premiered at La MaMa in 1971) and Maria-Irene Fornes’ “A Vietnamese Wedding” (which appeared here on a double bill in 1969). This weekend (Nov. 21-24), however, it goes into overdrive: over the course of one long weekend, it will present readings of four classic plays. For a full schedule of these readings, click here.

These are plays that we, here at the La MaMa Archives, have spent a lot of time talking about, researching, and cataloging. Each play represents a world of theatrical experimentation, and a community of theatrical practice, that was important to the transformations the early off off-Broadway movement helped bring about. But unless you were there—or unless you’re a scholar of theatre history—they might not be familiar to you.

Color Photograph: "Miss Nefertiti Regrets" (Bette Midler in Leotard + Fishnets)

Bette Midler, “Miss Nefertiti Regrets,” La MaMa 1965. Photo by James Gossage. (UIN: OBJ.1965.0161)

Tom Eyen’s “Ms. Nefertiti Regrets” might be best remembered for having featured Bette Midler in what appears to have been her New York stage debut: she was initially cast as “Naomi and Assorted Virgins” in the 1965 La MaMa production. But soon after the show opened, Eyen re-cast her as Nefertiti. One reviewer called the production, a musical, “wild,” “swinging,” and “hilarious”: a “pure camp” take on “Queen Nefertiti’s true love for both Julius Caesar and Marc Antony.” Eyen staged the play several more times over the course of La MaMa’s history (including twice in 1966, and once in 1973), over time changing the honorific in the title from Miss to Ms. At one point, a theatre columnist named Leonard Lyons printed a rumor that Midler was in negotiations to bring the play to Broadway; this never happened (though Eyen’s work finally did get to Broadway with the musical “Dreamgirls”). La MaMa’s Archives holds a great deal of material related to this and subsequent productions, including programs, fliers, press clippings, and dozens of photographs.

H.M. (Harry) Koutoukas “Medea at the Laundromat.” When this production premiered at La MaMa in October 1965, its was officially titled “Medea; or Maybe the Stars May Understand; or Veiled Strangeness: A Ritualistic Camp.” (Once, when asked about his “plays,” Koutoukas explained, “They’re camps—I call them camps. Plays are things of the Fifties.” [NY Native 10/29/90]). The show’s plot is based on Euripides’ Medea, but the action takes place in a contemporary laundromat—and somehow, the title just got shortened over time. Although the Village Voice would award Koutoukas an Obie the next year “for the style and energy of his assaults on the theatre in both playwriting and production,” its initial review of his Medea was perplexed—“Some of the language is beautiful, some of it is unintelligible,” the reviewer wrote. “The play is violently anti-logic, anti-Greek” and, (in part because its Medea was played, in drag, by a “six-foot-three man”) “grotesque.” [10/21/65]. There are only a few objects related to this production in the La MaMa Archives– but we do have a great many records documenting the life and work of the historically under-appreciated Harry Koutoukas. (I didn’t know him personally but, after cataloging a lot of these materials, I admit I have a big queer history crush on Harry.)

Paul Foster‘s “The Silver Queen Saloon.” Originally titled just “The Silver Queen,” this play premiered at La MaMa in April 1973. The production was packed with downtown luminaries, including playwright Paul Foster (who had been around since the founding of La MaMa), director Robert Patrick, and lighting designer Johnny Dodd. It also featured, as performers, Diane Lane (did you know she started her career as a child actor at La MaMa?) and, even more surprisingly, Meat Loaf. It featured “a wonderful grab bag of country, gospel, honkey-tonk, and ballad belting” music, and was “the most commercially viable production” of La MaMa’s 1973 season, according to Robb Baker, writing in After Dark July 1973. The show moved off-Broadway to the Mercer Arts Center in October 1973. La MaMa Archives holds several copies of the showbill created for this production, but not much else.

Flyer for "Bluebeard" (La MaMa Record OBJ.1970.0001)

Flyer for “Bluebeard.” La MaMa, 1970. (UIN: OBJ.1970.0001)

Charles Ludlam’s “Bluebeard.” It is hard to briefly summarize the history of this seminal play, which in its short run at La MaMa in March 1970 featured legendaries Lola Pashalinski, Black-Eyed Susan, and Mario Montez, as well as Ludlam himself in the title role. The official Ludlam chronology notes that this “Melodrama in Three Acts” was originally staged at Christopher’s End, and then ran “briefly at La MaMa before an extended run at the Performing Garage”; and that it was the Ridiculous Theater Company’s “first critical success.” La MaMa Archives holds very little documentation of this production– just a program (which indicates that the show had two intermissions), and a star-studded promotional flyer (at right).

–Rachel Mattson

The readings series is free, but you do have to reserve a spot.  Come on down!


2 thoughts on “Live from the Vault

  1. The photo entitled “Bette Midler in “Miss Nefertiti Regrets.” La MaMa, 1965. Photographer unknown. (UIN: OBJ.1965.0161)” is by James D. Gossage, a major photographer of 1960s Off-Off Broadway theatre whose work is in the lincoln Center Library and other collections. You will find many of his photos in this archive of Caffe Cino material.

  2. Thank you for adding my name as photographer to photo of Davida Woloski and Bette Midler. Bette was Naomi and Assorted Virgins for just a few performances. The ‘first’ Nefertiti was Leigh Senter who was very pretty and had a wonderful voice, but did not match what Tom Eyen wanted in the way of acting, and was replaced (I believe during the first week) with Bette Midler.

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