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To pay for classes, Malina worked in a laundry and as a “waitress, singer, and hat-check girl” at the nightspot owned by the German Jewish cabaret icon Valeska Gert, who had played the role of Polly Peachum in the 1931 film version of the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht “Threepenny Opera.” In one class, a teacher commended Malina’s well-honed pantomime in the role of a waitress, unaware of the student’s laborious nightly training in such gestures.
The classes themselves, as described by Malina, were revelatory on many levels. When one teacher played a scratchy recording of the famous French Jewish actress Sarah Bernhardt in Racine’s “Phèdre,” Malina recalls: “At first, it sounded like nothing but a most unhappy chicken,” but after repeated study, the “gliding, classical rhythm, and the beauty of Sarah Bernhardt’s rendition became clear.” Other classes included performances that immediately struck her as exemplary, such as when instructor Herbert Berghof recited excerpts from the 18th-century German philo-Semitic play “Nathan the Wise.” Malina comments: “Mr. Berghof’s Nathan was so wise, so Semitic, so humorous as to elude description.”
By contrast, Malina was fiercely self-critical of her own early class performances, such as in Racine’s Old Testament-inspired “Esther,” as part of a chorus which played the role of the eponymous heroine in the student staging. Concentration was a problem for Malina as a teenager, and the more she struggled, the “harder I was thinking of thinking and the less I was being a Jewess freed from slavery.” This pensiveness made her independent-minded. Though her classmates dismissed it as commercial Broadway fare, Malina relished “Jacobowsky & the Colonel,” a 1944 romantic comedy-drama adapted by S. N. Behrman from a Franz Werfel original. The same play was later filmed, starring Danny Kaye, as “Me and the Colonel.” Malina mused: “Perhaps [the play’s] European, Semitic flavor was closer to me.”
That flavor led Malina to perform at Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theatre on Second Avenue as one of the angels in a production of I.L. Peretz’s “Dray Matones” (Three Gifts). From Schwartz, Malina states that she learned a “different discipline” derived from the acting style of the celebrated “Dybbuk”: “It is an endless struggle between outcry and restraint. The Jewish outcry overcoming the restraint of oppression.”
Malina was still exemplifying this outcry in Living Theatre street appearances during last fall’s Occupy Wall Street protests. She is a bearer of powerful tradition, part of her lastingly intense, illuminatingly idealistic theatrical legacy.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.