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Mud/Pastorale

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MUD

Piven Theatre
at Victory Gardens Theater

Mud, Maria Irene Fornes's portrait of three souls mired in the savagery of their dirt-poor existence, is brutal and lyrical all at once. Fornes treats passion with respect and tenderness; she even treats passion of the unsavory sort unflinchingly, as nothing less than human. Also unflinching and true is this Piven Theatre revival (the troupe performed the play in workshop in 1988), directed by Joyce Piven and acted by a most talented cast.

Mae (Lili Taylor in an astonishingly nuanced performance) is a "hungry soul" living in a rural shack with her sometime "mate" Lloyd (Paul Quinn). Unlike Mae, Lloyd lives at the mercy of his simple and predictable urges; he doesn't understand Mae's aspirations to higher learning and a better life. When Henry (Tom Webb), an older, mildly literate gentleman, enters their lives, Mae is ecstatic, Lloyd petulant and begrudging. For a time Henry is Mae's salvation, bringing her light and encouragement (as well as lipstick) as Lloyd sinks deeper into filth and resentment, unable to compete. It's Henry's mind Mae wants, though she takes his body with it; and Lloyd clearly has nothing similar to offer.

It's a terrible blow when Henry's mind is stolen from him by a stroke. Mae is left with little more than Henry's body and its urges--not a far cry from Lloyd, who is childishly cruel about this "victory."

Taylor's Mae is a serene volcano who never squanders emotion but reaches stubbornly for light and learning, reserving her strength for what's important and dismissing the trivial. As she irons and argues with Lloyd her face is set in exhausted lines, but it shines when Henry speaks. Her excitement at being able to read aloud--closely following her own grubby fingers across the page--translates into an ecstatic rocking back and forth that transforms the act from the cerebral to the physical. It's as though she were wrestling the book instead of reading it.

Webb allows some of Henry's mean soul to peek through the initial glowing beneficence; still, the state Henry's reduced to (barely able to speak, spitting oatmeal at Lloyd) is excruciatingly painful to behold. Quinn does not rely on country-bumpkin high jinks for the difficult role of Lloyd--he brings dimension and depth, even a touch of tragic dignity to this lost soul who has intimate relations with pigs and fights for what little honor he has left with the few weapons available to him.

PASTORALE

Burning Couch
at Red Bones Theatre

There's a phenomenon that seems peculiar to people in their early 20s: in a self-imposed state of entropy the energy of youth is directed toward staving off adulthood, as though life were little more than an impending disaster. The urge to stay in bed or lie inert before the TV for a year or so is nearly irresistible. Hanging out in bars or basements has an unfathomable appeal. It is fashionable to indulge in a lot of self-examination during this shutdown, but the soul-searching is ultimately a fancy dodge, useless unless tested by reentering the stream of life. In most cases the sufferer pulls out of this funk as from an overlong nap, propelled into action by sheer boredom.

This state is the subject of Pastorale, Deborah Eisenberg's ode to inertia. It's not a particularly good idea for a play. Either Eisenberg enjoys a challenge or she never considered that her portrait of three young WASPS dealing with their accumulated boredom might induce migraine. Burning Couch's painfully amateurish production of this chattering, pointless script (at its best it's like some naive homage to the worst Hollywood screenwriter and director Lawrence Kasdan has to offer) pushes past migraine: you might stay at home and chew ground glass for two hours and achieve the same effect. And you wouldn't have to park.

Rachel (Molly Glynn) and Melanie (Suzi Regan) are comfortably ensconced in a mountain cabin they're house-sitting indefinitely. Rachel is maniacally perky despite the fact that she has no income and just lost her boyfriend. Melanie is a Free Spirit and has the red silk nightgown to prove it. A parade of nameless men, unburdened by character or thought, visit her bedroom over the course of the play. Like all free spirits, Melanie is Trouble. She washes down pills, for example, with gigantic glasses of Wild Turkey. Luckily this is not a problem since she too is unemployed. From time to time the girls are visited by Steve (Kristian Hammond), a sensitive mope who hangs around lending an ear to their troubles. Why he seems to spend more time with them than with his girlfriend, Celia (Kathleen Marshall), is never explained. Perhaps it's the witty repartee he's come to expect of Rachel and Melanie: "So whadda we wanna do?" "This I guess. This is what we're doing." That is, posing on the couch, discussing what they want to do.

None has even the vaguest aspirations, so their conversations are hardly enthralling. They say such things as, "I ran into Celia downtown. She was buying a notebook or something." Leaving us to wonder just what Celia was going to do with that notebook. It was the most pressing question of the evening, aside from the matter of where the money for all that bourbon and pot was coming from. The first act ends with unintentional irony. Guests arrive at the cabin for a Christmas party, the music is cranked up, cans of beer are handed out, and for a full two minutes the audience watches as the young actors drink and cavort--it's as though director Karen Fort realized (too late) that the play has all the depth and integrity of a Lite beer commercial and simply gave in to it.

Fort certainly cast the play that way. The actors are uniformly pretty and their performances uniformly dreadful. At one point, when Celia, Melanie, and Rachel stand in a row, you notice that all three actresses have the same shade of light brown hair worn in the same style; they have the same clear skin and vacant expressions in their blue eyes. It seems a fleet of Gidget clones have invaded the play, their lipstick perfect even if they're supposed to have just tumbled out of bed. When one of Melanie's lovers (Scott Sampson) begins to grope her, it's strangely revolting, like watching a Barbie and Ken doll come to life to mock human passion.

At the end, when they're being forced out of the house (the neighbors have complained), Rachel tries to make sense of it all. "What's going on?" she asks, as fiercely as she can without mussing her hair. "Nothing is going on," she's told. (We're told.) "We're just sitting around smoking dope."

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