Element Theatre Company

at Chicago Actors Ensemble

At the end of the 7th of the 17 scenes in Mud, I sighed and the person seated to my left sighed, too. They were weary sighs, sighs of resignation, a surrender to the inertia of the production. It may well have been one of those communal moments that are supposed to happen in the theater. If so, I think we were responding not only to the rhythm of the performance--like sand through an hourglass--but to the depressing subject as well. We were sinking into the mud.

There are three characters in Mud. Mae irons clothes for a living and lives, if you can call it that, with Lloyd. Lloyd is a filthy scum who was adopted by Mae's father sometime in the distant past. Mae defines her relationship with Lloyd not as family or lovers, but "like animals who grow up together and mate." Into this squalor enters Henry, an upright twit who distinguishes himself only because he can read and has table manners. So, Henry moves into the bedroom, Lloyd sleeps on the floor, and Mae seeks, through this new arrangement, to rise up out of the quicksand of her life.

You could call it a love triangle, but that word, love, is problematic. Under the maddening hand of playwright Maria Irene Fornes, love doesn't fade, it deconstructs. Things start out positively enough. Mae likes Henry and he respects her, so she invites him to live with her, Then once Henry moves in, it's as if some degenerative symbiosis sets in. Mae reveals the litany of her needs ("I am a hungry soul. I am a longing soul. I am an empty soul") to Henry's consternation. Henry, in turn, starts making demands on Mae. And in the background, although it's unclear whether he's a catalyst or a bystander, is the puling, sullen Lloyd. Whatever it is that these people call love begins to break down into its ugly components: blame, territoriality, revenge, envy, parasitism.

No, it's not my idea of a fun evening either. But that's not to say that Fornes doesn't make her point, sometimes eloquently. In the most effective scene, Henry accuses Lloyd of theft, and Lloyd counters with the charge that Henry has stolen his place in Mae's bed. The interesting thing about this petty squabble is that both men address each other through Mae, in the third person, saying things like, "Tell him he owes me $1.38." And Mae just sits there, mute, an unwilling correspondent, all prettied up in a nice dress and lipstick with nowhere to turn.

There are other scenes I could go into, but it's depressing me to think about them, and besides, the overall implication is the same: men are jerks and women are victims. This doesn't strike me as an original insight or, in the long run, sympathetic to either sex. But Fornes's strong suit isn't insight, it's repetition. First, Fornes's dialogue is stripped to telegraphic brevity and simplicity. Certain key phrases--like "Fuck you," "Stop doing that," and "I don't retain what I learn"--are repeated with a didactic, and dully poetic, impact. Why Fornes does this, I can only guess. Maybe it's just her style. Maybe she's trying to make the point that we've failed to learn by insight and that only by repeatedly pounding away at us can she hope to get through. Who knows and, in the end, who cares?

I stopped caring, as did the person to my left, at the end of the seventh scene. But that's not entirely the playwright's fault. Sure, it's a grim enough play, and Fornes presents her characters in a clinical, unsentimental fashion. But it's director Doug Rand who has allowed all the tension to drain out of the play. With metronomic rhythm, the 17 scenes are punctuated by deliberately protracted blackouts during which the actors make adjustments in the set while, inexplicably, remaining in character. The audience, meanwhile, listens to an artsy version of elevator music--a single, quavering note or the recorded hum of an air conditioner. And, as if this inertia isn't enough, Rand provides a four-minute intermission during which the audience remain in their seats, in the dark, listening to an electric organ imitate a harmonica. Perhaps Rand is trying to underscore Fornes's motifs of repetition and hopelessness--a point reluctantly taken.

Otherwise Rand's direction is competent, if somewhat labored. The general feel of the production is as if some ponderous abstraction--like a lesson in physics or phylogeny or social psychology--were being studied. And the characters aren't so much enacted as presented, as Rod Serling would say, "for your consideration."

Of the three cast members, only Cynthia Caponera gives the impression that her character, Mae, was once human. Especially effective, and one of the rare touching moments in the play, is the scene when Mae reads aloud from her primer, occasionally sounding out the odd syllable, following the words gleefully with both index fingers. Less human, and relentlessly piglike, is Lloyd (played by Vito Bitondo), who slaps the book out of Mae's hands in that same scene. A somewhat surreal performance is offered by Jim Ortlieb (as Henry), which makes the play all the more eerie and inscrutable. In their defense, it's safe to say that these actors have the skill to create fuller, more accessible characters but they've simply chosen to hold their characters at arm's length.

All of which left me, by the end of the play, detached and feeling as if I'd been looking at these characters through the wrong end of a telescope. Momentarily disoriented, and too exhausted to cope with all of life's real and imagined problems, I climbed over people's knees to leave the theater. But everyone else--everyone just sat there. I hope they're all right.

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