María Irene Fornés and the Garden of Our Potential


It’s fitting, I think, that the theatre season kicks back up in the fall, just when classrooms are coming back to life, too. Education and drama are, after all, twin disciplines. Theatre has an inescapable whiff of pedagogy: the actors go up there like lecturers, holding forth passionately, using lesson plans provided by playwrights. And every good teacher has a whiff of the showman. There’s a rightful expectation, in both contexts, that nobody—teacher nor student, performer nor watcher—should leave the encounter unchanged. “Mud” and “Drowning”—two plays by the great María Irene Fornés, directed as a chiming pair, at Mabou Mines, by JoAnne Akalaitis, with newly composed music by Philip Glass—both take as a subject the hunger for knowledge that is the troubled mark of our species.

“Mud” is about a barely literate—but learning—woman named Mae (Wendy vanden Heuvel). She lives with a childlike man named Lloyd (Paul Lazar), who subsists in a wild, seemingly feral stupor. Unlike Mae, who goes to school, cherishes her textbooks, and thinks of her clumsy attempts at reading comprehension as “intermediate,” Lloyd wallows in his ignorance, thinking only about erectile problems. Apparently the two—who present, alternately, as bizarre siblings and doomed lovers—have quit trying to have sex. Early on, Lloyd insists, unconvincingly, that he “got it up yesterday!”

MAE: When!

LLOYD: Afternoon!

MAE: Never saw it.

LLOYD: You weren’t here.

MAE: Where was I?

LLOYD: At school. You missed it. I got it up.

MAE: Who with?

LLOYD: Fuck you. I’m not telling you.

MAE: Who with?

LLOYD: With myself.

The source of the palpable, growing tension between the couple seems to be their unequally yoked aspirations. Mae wants to learn, and, by way of learning, to rise from her tough circumstances—they live in obvious poverty, in a “wooden room which sits on an earth promontory”—but Lloyd can’t, or won’t, try to meet her on higher ground. Knowledge, in this play, is an ever-churning system of unveiling and subsequent disillusion. The more you know, the less satisfied you are on the rung you find yourself on. You take another step up, look around, and the process repeats.

Trouble comes in the form of another man. Henry (Tony Torn) can read—worse than most but better than Mae or Lloyd—and when Lloyd falls sick and Mae needs to read the diagnosis, Henry shows up at their place to save the day. To Mae, Henry’s a learned prince, all sophistication, but it becomes clear early on that he’s little better than Lloyd when it comes down to character. Book-smart or not, they’re just men. Go figure. Soon Henry’s living in the house and sleeping in Lloyd’s bed. Lloyd’s been banished to the living-room floor. One of the more unironically touching moments of the play comes when Mae describes her relationship with Lloyd to Henry:

“We are related but I don’t know what to call it. We are not brother
and sister. We are like animals who grow up together and mate. We were
mates till you came here, but not since then, I could not be his mate
again, not while you are here, I am not an animal. I care about
things, Henry, I do. I know some things that I never learned. It’s
just that I don’t know what they are. I cannot grasp them.”

So much of Fornés’s inimitable dialogue, here and elsewhere, sounds like this: classical and primitive and modernist all at once. Listening from the audience, you can hear the loose logic of her comma splices: thoughts crowd in on one another. She wrote these voices like someone thinking of a cave painting but sitting in the sculpture garden at MOMA. Her characters speak with deceptively frank simplicity, using short, declarative sentences, all saltwater and lulling tang, illustrating the slow process of inner accretion that ends with a dire necessity for outward change.

The mythic cast of the characters’ speech (and, in due time, the brutality of their actions) put me in mind of the Eden story—the tantalizing, elusive idea of escape by way of education makes Henry a kind of serpent, dangling his relative worldliness as fruit from a forbidden tree. Akalaitis’s production, modern and elegant, helps that feeling along. The lighting scheme, eerie with ambient neons, by Thomas Dunn, is simple and hip and emotionally astute. Glass’s cold melodies break up the scenes, and make certain moments of high tension seem as though they were snatched from a thriller.

The stage directions are read aloud by a narrator, played by Sifiso Mabena, whose presence throughout the show adds another level of ironic remove. When she’s not talking, Mabena looks on like a benign angel, unnoticed by the characters but lost in curiosity or shock, just like the members of the audience; she knows the story, obviously, but is somehow still elementally moved by it. This is a fully fleshed-out, casually intelligent production, but one facet of its strategy is to make itself feel like a sketch, more a staged reading than a thoroughgoing entertainment. True to the logic of a staged reading, then, the characters don’t always carry out an action when the narrator mentions that it’s happening. Sometimes they all burst into quick, spastic movements, almost dancelike, to echo the thoughtful frenzy of Glass’s interstitial music.

“Drowning” is a spaced-out, somewhat trippy five-page play that Akalaitis and Glass have made into a near-abstract opera. (As in “Mud,” the music director Michael A. Ferrara plays keyboard; he’s joined, in “Drowning,” by Anna Bikales on harp.) At the opening, two men (Gregory Purnhagen and Peter Stewart; they’re soon joined by another man played by Thomas Cruz), both wearing hugely padded fat suits and natty outfits, sit at a café table. They’re “probably in Europe,” according to Fornés’s stage directions. One of them points at a newspaper and falls into a reverie. “My God, what is it?” he asks his tablemate. He’s just like Mae, perhaps even more lost. He wants to learn. In his innocence he reminds me of one of my favorite poems these days, by the supremely meditative minimalist Robert Lax:

The man keeps on discovering archetypal items. The idea of a snowman rocks his world. Soon he settles his attention, obsessively, on a woman whose picture is in the newspaper. “She is a mystery to me,” he says, with a kind of holy terror. “I look at her as one looks at an animal, loving those eyes, the look in them.” He’s like an overdeveloped infant, miraculously able to articulate his first encounter with the ravishing world. “Mud” and “Drowning” are plays about the strange wilderness that grows when the garden of our potential—that basic but infinitely varied form, whose thirst for more life is never slaked—goes untended. ♦


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