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    Complete archive, 1999-present

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      Mud and Drowning
    A search for the soul

    "Mud" and "Drowning" open the Signature Theater's season entirely devoted to playwright Maria Irene Fornes.


    Maria Irene Fornes has much to tell about the depths of things, like desire and the yearning for education. Both are inherently human traits, and Fornes' lyrical plays explore nothing if not what it means to be human. It is fitting that the Signature Theatre Company, in mid-Manhattan, is devoting its 1999-2000 season to Fornes' work, old and new, for one senses that time and space are needed to discern the contours of her world and absorb its hidden treasures.

    Company: Signature Theatre Co..
    Written by: Maria Irene Fornes.
    Directed by: David Esbjornson.
    Cast: Deirdre O'Connell, Paul Lazar, Marc Damon Johnson, Philip Goodwin, Jed Diamond.

    Related links: Official site
    Fornes, Cuban-born and a lauded, if still peripheral, voice in American theater for four decades, has crafted more than 30 plays and won eight Obie awards, but her following until now has been limited to audiences more at ease with experimental theater.

    Signature claims to be the only theater in the United States to devote an entire season to the work of a single playwright. The season's first production, the one-act plays "Mud" and "Drowning," runs from Sept. 14 through Oct. 10 at the Peter Norton Space at 555 West 42nd Street.

    Previous Signature seasons have explored the work of playwrights like Sam Shepard, Horton Foote, Edward Albee, and most recently, John Guare. Fornes, at 69, as Signature's playwright-in-residence this season, will not only have a chance to actively contribute to the latest incarnations of her work but may for the first time find a wider audience farther from the fringe. One can hope that the world premiere of a new play to be unveiled in February might do for Fornes what Signature's production of "Three Tall Women" did for Albee.

    "Mud," first performed in 1983, is about a young woman's desperate efforts to improve herself and discover the dignity of her own life. "Drowning" was commissioned in the mid-1980s as one of seven short plays based on Anton Chekhov stories. But while Chekhov's story is surely one of his most surreal, it provides only the thinnest of skeletons upon which Fornes hangs the flesh, sinew and muscle of her foray into the depths of the human soul. "Mud" and "Drowning" were not written to be performed together, but presented as they are in the current Signature production, one melding into the other without intermission, the two together evoke a haunting portrait of the human soul grappling with self-awareness.

    Both plays are inquiries into what it means to be human and the limits of compassion. Mae and the two men in her life in "Mud" resemble animals at different stages of trying to extricate themselves from the primordial sludge from which they have emerged. Roe and Pea, the two cafe-sitters of "Drowning," have the appearance of bloated sea lions or manatees, their physical gestures suggesting the slow-motion of creatures that live submerged underwater, yet they prove to be more human than their counterparts in "Mud."

    One savors Fornes' fecund language, which manages to be at once inculcatory and capable of weaving an oneiric spell onstage. It may be that her persistent exploration in much of her work of the educational process provides a key to the magic her language finds in delineating simple things. When Mae confesses her difficulty in retaining what she has learned, Henry carefully explains, as if to a child, "If I didn't remember things, I would feel that I don't know them. I like to learn things so I can live according to them, according to my knowledge."

    In allowing characters to state what at first appears obvious but on reflection is too seldom really understood, Fornes reminds us that in losing such innocence, in opting for a been-there-done-that, pseudo-worldly attitude toward life, we have forgotten basic reasons for doing what we do — becoming educated, for example. Insights such as this are akin to the wonders to be found in the marvelous real, or magical realism, employed by Fornes' Latin American contemporaries Alejo Carpentier and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

    Continued: 1 | 2 | Next

    OCTOBER 1, 1999

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