MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Primal Ooze: María Irene Fornés at New City Theater

 George Catalano, Mary Ewald, and Tim Gouran in Fornes's Mud; (c) Anya Kazanjian

George Catalano, Mary Ewald, and Tim Gouran say grace in Fornes’s Mud; (c) Anya Kazanjian

Theater done New City style tends as a rule to be remarkably intimate: its current production of MUD is staged with an unflinching up-closeness. With just one row of seats that can accommodate 20 audience members tops, you’re positioned on the same level as the performance space, separated only by a few feet and a fine mesh screen from MUD‘s primal misery.

Written in the early 1980s by María Irene Fornés (now 85) — who collaborated several times with New City in the late 1980s/early 1990s — this grimly concentrated one-act drama spans but a little over an hour yet feels as exhaustive as a classical Greek tragic trilogy in New City director John Kazanjian’s searing production.

The simple-looking but intricately detailed set co-designed by Nina Moser and Kazanjian is a claustrophobic hovel, a roughhewn, comfortless, rural outpost in which Mae (New City co-founder Mary Ewald) longs for “a decent life.” There she ekes out a caged existence with her mysteriously ailing “mate” Lloyd, who had been adopted into the family by Mae’s deceased father as a younger boy. Lloyd’s arrested development has made him a bitter parasite on Mae’s drudgery, and he stinks with resentment against her attempts to improve herself through education.

Into this dire menage enters the more refined-seeming Henry (George Catalono), whose relative (but in fact quite limited) literacy and manners suggest a beacon of civilized hope for Mae. She takes Henry on as her new lover, while the further demoted Lloyd stews in bitterness, rage, and self-pity. Nina Moser’s costumes draw maximal impact from the contrast of Henry’s modest suit and tie with Lloyd’s dirt-encrusted bare feet and soiled rags.

Mae has staked her hopes on an illusion, though, and Henry doesn’t fail to disappoint with his petty behavior when Lloyd steals his money to buy desperately needed medicine. Rendered an invalid following a sudden accident, Henry soon becomes an additional drain on Mae’s resources — even less articulate than the brutish Lloyd. Fornés’ script, filled with poetry of a severe, forlorn beauty, draws metaphorical connections between animals and these hapless humans (making memorable use of an image of the shelter-seeking hermit crab).

Kazanjian gets his superb cast to fathom the many angles of this dark parable by the Cuban-born Fornés, including its registers of black humor. Gouran play Lloyd as a sulking American Caliban but finds variety in a character who can too easily come across as a nasty stereotype. Physical gestures juxtapose his listless impotence in the first scenes against Lloyd’s savagely dancing joy over his rival’s downfall. Catalono brings out Henry’s self-important pomposity as well as his rage over being driven to rage by Lloyd’s theft — Henry knows this undoes his facade.

Mary Ewald is one of the too-little-sung gems of Seattle acting. I was deeply impressed by her portrayal of Hamlet at New City last fall — a prince tormented by his tendency to idealize — and she is a legendary interpreter of avant-garde roles. Ewald sets the tone for the shades of despair and longed-for hope with which Fornés structures her play. Her Mae is trapped but determined not to play the role of victim. She declares that she intends to “die clean” in a hospital. “in white sheets” — not in the filth Lloyd seems content to fester in. All of which intensifies the horror of the otherwise rather predictable denouement.

With snapshot-like black-outs punctuating each of Mud‘s brief 17 scenes, Lindsay Smith’s lighting — along with Smith’s sound design of elegant snippets from J.S. Bach — creates a subtle distancing effect that is crucial to Kazanjian’s production. For all the Dust Bowl social realism of its surfaces, Mud comes across not as documentary critique but as a dark modernist myth of struggle and abandon.

Mud, by María Irene Fornés, until June 13 at New City Theater, 1406 18th Ave., Seattle; tickets here.

(c)2015 Thomas May — All rights reserved.

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