“Resist” is an apt title for this documentary on The Living Theatre, the avant garde theatrical troupe which peaked in the 1960s but which is still functioning today. As depicted in this film, the charms and challenges posed by The Living Theatre are very easy to resist.
Founded in 1947 by Julian Beck and Judith Malina, The Living Theatre existed on the fringes of New York’s artistic scene. Designed as an alternative to commercial theatrical presentations, its experimental approach to staging and subject matter didn’t quite click until the 1963 production of “The Brig,” a brutal drama set in a U.S. Marine Corps military prison. A few years later, The Living Theatre caught the cultural zeitgeist with “Paradise Now,” a wild work that culminated in a mass of naked and semi-naked bodies writhing in orgiastic frenzy on the stage. In the early 1980s, a tour of Europe with the ancient Greek classic “Antigone” struck nerves with its eerie parallels of contemporary political repression (especially in Eastern European venues which were still under Communist rule).
Through the 1960s and 1970s, The Living Theatre used streets to stage provocative and disturbing pieces of mini-theater. The most notable example was in 1973, when the street outside the New York offices of the Chilean state airline was used to perform a piece condemning the human rights abuses following the US-backed coup which brought the Pinochet regime to power. The Living Theatre had a double setback in 1985 with the commercial failure of using New York’s Joyce Theatre as a permanent home and the death of Julian Beck. Yet over time, the group pressed forward and continues to make its presence felt in street theater and performances in alternative venues.
Time has also passed by The Living Theatre and its mission. As “Resist” unintentionally displays, the pacifist-anarchist politics which shaped the theatrical group during its halcyon days seem wildly outdated today. Street theater presentations in war-scarred Beirut and post-9/11 New York are also painfully insensitive, given the suffering in the cities surrounding the group’s shrill offerings.
“Resist” is a bit sloppy in many ways, especially in its failure to properly identify many of the people being interviewed on camera. The film also doesn’t probe too deeply in regard to basic questions of how the theater has functioned financially for so long, given that many of its performances are held for free.
Still, “Resist” provides a wealth of rare footage of The Living Theatre when it was still considered relevant. A grainy black-and-white film clip of “The Brig” shows a harrowing production which must have been an extreme shock to the audiences of its time. Vintage interviews with Beck and current chats with Molina also offer fascinating insight into what drove them to their accomplishments.