By Bob Shuman and Marit Shuman
María Irene Fornés’s Mud/Drowning is playing for only 15 performances, September 28 to October 9, at Mabou Mines, in a double bill, directed by JoAnne Akalaitis, with new music composed by Philip Glass and produced by Mabou Mines and Weathervane Productions, in association with Philip Glass’ The Days and Nights Festival. The evening is not a return to the fantastical weirdness of previous outré Mabou Mines outings, although the first production of “Drowning,” in 1986, as part of an evening of one-acts called Orchards, unrelated to Mabou Mines, and inspired by Chekhov, cast her play with men dressed as potatoes. Today, the acclaimed director, Akalaitis, in an inclusive, intimate mood, offers her Fornés shows as hardly more than unaffected stationary rehearsal presentations. The first, Mud, is set at a long table (with the actors widely spaced, presumably in adherence of Covid rules; the production’s original staging was in Carmel, California, in October 2019), and they are accompanied by a keyboardist, Michael A. Ferrara, and harpist, Anna Bikales. White, russet, yellow, brown, blue: potatoes can be of many colors, but Fornés, originally from Cuba, was an important champion of Latino voices and actors before the millennium, when a string of her works, self-directed, played at Theater for the New City with her oft-chosen star Sheila Dabney, who was flooded with emotion at her curtain calls, after having recreated the brutalized, downtrodden, and brown, who claimed and called for humanity.
If the color of potatoes doesn’t much matter, the color of the actors in the first piece, Mud, can, offering the radical view we assume when we see drama at this theatre. If it doesn’t and one is producing the work of a Cuban playwright, in a play called Mud, and unearthing and tripping over pieces of Tennessee Williams and Sam Shepard lying across the page, why not do Orpheus Descending, instead? Perhaps Akalaitis is signaling the most radical possible solution for Off-Broadway: a cease-fire on race issues and maybe ones concerning gender and age. Next season, everything will have returned to normal but, after the weight of COVID-19, for a moment, Mabou Mines has a celebration, with a white, blonde actress (Wendy vanden Heuvel) at the center (also in Mud are Paul Lazar, Sifiso Mabena, Tony Torn, and Autumn Angelettie) and old tenors and a countertenor, in fat suits, recalling an Orson Welles trio, dressed alike in loose jackets and scarves, one with a pork pie hat (Tomas Cruz, Gregory Purnhagen, and Peter Stewart). The mood is genial and marigold bright, unless you think the color is a reference to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a story about another trapped woman); the lighting design is by Thomas Dunn and the scenic and costume design are by Kaye Voyce, using blue and tan patterned linoleum, as if a background to a cozy cast party with wine, cheese, and sweet potato pie. We need that vibe even if it is a very different one than the ones Fornes brought to many of her plays, roughly forty years ago. Then, the presentations could be aching, anguished, with pinpricks of matter-of-fact humor, artistically rendered sets by the author, and silences, sometimes long, perhaps to hear that small, quiet voice (like the author’s)–of what was human, among the bestiality allowed on the stage. Signature Theatre’s production of Mud, at the turn of the millennium was unbearably intense and that is a vision probably close to what Fornés had in mind for the piece herself (Mud itself is reminiscent of a story by Zora Neale Hurston, specifically “Sweat”), but realize that Fornes, as a working playwright and theatremaker, did write comedy, as well as musicals. What one of the reviewers here recalls first, from a class taken with Fornés in the 1980s, was the requirement that characters in plays never be made fun of or mocked, whether they were funny or not—their humanity was sacred.
By taking away the slow, Beckettian tempo of Fornés scenes, an awareness of melodrama and comedy can emerge (Akalaitis uses humorous physical parallelism, of hands and body placements, as examples, pronounced in the Mabou Mines production, and has a clown in Tony Torn as Henry, a man who can barely read). Actually, such an approach displays Fornés’s writing technique, which calls for randomization and displacement (the playwright Robin Goldfin typed and compiled many of Fornés’s exercises, and apparently there are more. Hopefully, INTAR has them and they are in safekeeping, a rare treasure). What the method allows Glass, however, are clearly defined sections to compose for, which is why the evening can feel like being at a silent film, where music is played at clear demarcations (Fornés’s script actually calls for freezes to last eight seconds at the end of each scene, which will “create the effect of a still photograph,” amplifying the idea of the filmic and sectioned). Glass’s post-minimalist music for the opera does not (and probably should or could not) feel particularly specific to a rural America, in Mud, or to potatoes reading a tabloid at a diner, whatever that would sound like (Gabrielle Vincent’s anatomically accurate makeup for the bloated bald-headed men may be a reference to actual victims of drowning). Glass seems to take a generic, or maybe unobtrusive, route through the absurdity, giving ambiance in minor-keyed arpeggios, relying on sung text, without, for instance, configuring arias, duets, and trios.
Part of the allure of this Mud/Drowning may, in fact, be the decision to have extreme visionaries take themselves less seriously, less adventurously, less singularly, and be tempted to put down their own visions. Instead, they offer what is possible: non-intimidation, non-attachment, an informal feel of the home, and an appeal to camaraderie, after a very long two years of the arts being at sea.
© by Bob Shuman and Marit Shuman
Visit Mabou Mines
Photos: I. Fornes (Mabou Mines); cast of ‘Mud’ (Credit…Julieta CervantesNY Times); Cast of ‘Drowning’ (Credit…Julieta Cervantes, NY Times); J Akalaitis (Mabou Mines); P. Glass (Famous Composers.net)