It’s normal, I think, for the theater season to resume in the fall, just when the classrooms come to life as well. Education and theater are, after all, twin disciplines. The theater has an inescapable pedagogical flavor: the actors come up there like lecturers, discussing passionately, from lesson plans provided by playwrights. And every good teacher has a whiff of a showman. It is rightly expected, in both contexts, that no one – teacher, student, performer or observer – will leave the encounter unchanged. “Mud” and “Drowning” – two plays by the great María Irene Fornés, staged as a chiming couple, in Mabou Mines, by JoAnne Akalaitis, with newly composed music by Philip Glass – both have as their subject the thirst for knowledge which 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 childish man named Lloyd (Paul Lazar), who lingers in a wild, seemingly savage stupor. Unlike Mae, who goes to school, cherishes her textbooks, and considers her clumsy attempts at reading comprehension “intermediate”, Lloyd wallows in her ignorance, thinking only of erectile problems. Apparently, the two – who alternately portray themselves as oddball siblings and doomed lovers – have stopped trying to have sex. Early on, Lloyd insists, unconvincingly, that he “did it yesterday!”
The source of the palpable and growing tension between the couple appears to be their unequally intertwined aspirations. Mae wants to learn and, through learning, get out of her predicament – they live in obvious poverty, in a “wooden room that sits on a promontory of earth” – but Lloyd can’t, or won’t. unwilling, try to meet her on higher ground. Knowledge, in this piece, is an ever-renewed system of unveiling and subsequent disillusionment. The more you know, the less satisfied you are with the rung you are on. You take another step forward, 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 ill and Mae has to read the diagnosis, Henry shows up at their house to save the day. To Mae, Henry is a scholarly prince, all in sophistication, but it becomes clear early on that he is little better than Lloyd when it comes to character. Book-smart or not, they’re just men. Go figure. Soon Henry will be living in the house and sleeping in Lloyd’s bed. Lloyd was relegated to the living room floor. One of the most moving moments in the play comes when Mae describes her relationship with Lloyd to Henry:
Much of Fornés’ inimitable dialogue, here and elsewhere, goes like this: classic and primitive and modernist at the same time. Listening to the audience, you can hear the loose logic of its splicing commas: thoughts crowding on top of each other. She wrote these voices like someone thinking of a cave painting but sitting in the sculpture garden at MOMA. His characters speak with a deceptively straightforward simplicity, using short, declarative sentences, all salty and smooth, illustrating the slow process of inner accretion that culminates in a compelling need for outer change.
The mythical cast of the characters’ speech (and, in due course, the brutality of their actions) reminded me of Eden’s story – the tantalizing and elusive idea of escape through education makes Henry a sort of snake, swinging its relative worldliness like the fruit of a forbidden tree. The production of Akalaitis, modern and elegant, contributes to this feeling. The lighting scheme, eerie with ambient neons, by Thomas Dunn, is simple and hip and emotionally clever. Glass’ cold melodies break up scenes and make some high-tension moments feel like they’ve been ripped from a thriller.
Stage directions are read aloud by a narrator, played by Sifiso Mabena, whose presence throughout the show adds another level of irony. When not speaking, Mabena looks like a benevolent angel, unnoticed by the characters but lost in curiosity or shock, much like the onlookers; she knows the story, obviously, but she’s somehow still moved by it. It’s a fully fleshed-out production and laid-back smarts, but part of its strategy is to feel like a sketch, more of a staged read than an in-depth entertainment. True to the logic of a staged reading, the characters therefore do not always perform an action when the narrator mentions that it is happening. At times, they all burst into rapid, spastic, almost dance-like motions to echo the thoughtful frenzy of Glass’ interstitial music.
“Drowning” is a spaced out, somewhat trippy five-page piece that Akalaitis and Glass have turned into an almost abstract opera. (As in “Mud,” musical director Michael A. Ferrara plays keyboard; he is joined, in “Drowning,” by Anna Bikales on harp.) At the opening, two men (Gregory Purnhagen and Peter Stewart; they are soon joined by another man played by Thomas Cruz), both dressed in heavy, heavily padded suits and elegant outfits, are seated at a coffee table. They are “probably in Europe”, according to the stage directions of Fornés. One of them points to a newspaper and falls into a reverie. “My God, what is it?” he asks his table companion. He’s like Mae, maybe even more lost. He wants to learn. In its innocence, it reminds me of one of my favorite poems these days, from the supremely meditative minimalist Robert Lax:
Man is constantly discovering archetypal objects. The idea of a snowman turns his world upside down. Soon he fixes his attention, obsessively, on a woman whose picture is in the newspaper. “She is a mystery to me,” he said with a kind of holy terror. “I look at her as one looks at an animal, I like those eyes, the look they contain.” He is like an overdeveloped child, miraculously able to articulate his first encounter with the lovely world. “Mud” and “Drowning” are pieces 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 quenched – is not maintained. ♦