“Mud [table work]” by María Irene Fornés, directed by JoAnne Akalaitis, music by Philip Glass, performers: from left, Paul Lazar, Wendy vanden Heuvel, and Bruce MacVittie, Mabou Mines (photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Mud/Drowning: [table work]/an Opera is a stellar, intimate production of two short plays by María Irene Fornés, presented by Mabou Mines, the venerable experimental theater company, and directed by the esteemed JoAnne Akalaitis, a Mabou Mines founding member, with music by Philip Glass.

Fornés, who died in 2018, was born in 1930 in Havana and emigrated to the United States at age 15. Also famous as Susan Sontag’s lover, she has enjoyed considerable attention recently with the autumn 2019 revival of Fefu and Her Friends at Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn and an Akalaitis-led Fornés festival at the Public Theater in New York in 2018. Moreover, in 2018, she was the subject of a documentary by Michelle Memran called The Rest I Make Up and NYU hosted the LTC Maria Irene Fornés Symposium.

Fornés’s writing in Mud and Drowning is terse and plain, cut down to the dry bone. The scenes exist in a reality that seems familiar and plausible yet feels dreamlike, monumental, and mythical. The plays were presented together in 1999 in a Fornés season at Signature Theatre in New York, where Paul Lazar played Lloyd in Mud as he does here.

Mud relates the tragic journey of Mae from caretaker to murder victim in 17 swift scenes. At the start, Mae and Lloyd live a spartan existence, their relationship unclear until later. They are brutally poor and uneducated. Mae does ironing. Lloyd does not work. They argue about sex. Mae longs to better herself and wants to read, which is how Henry enters their life. He moves in and replaces Lloyd as Mae’s principal companion. Mae is ready to walk out on both men by the end, but Lloyd kills her.

The plot changes are as sudden as a head-on collision, as when Henry masturbates and in the next instant, Mae accuses him of theft. The scene has only two lines, but it moves the story along at breakneck speed.

Paul Lazar seems born to play the malicious, mentally stunted Lloyd. Bruce MacVittie, like Lazar a downtown stalwart of many decades, morphs convincingly from Mae’s preening, superior, educated lover into the lump of human flesh that Mae gives Lloyd permission to kill because Henry is disabled and of no use to her anymore. Wendy Vanden Heuvel provides a pleasingly restrained performance as Mae.

Akalaitis, who has served as co-chair of the Juilliard directing program and artistic director of the Public Theater, successfully evokes the tone of Fornés’s worlds, though with her own twists. In Mud, Akalaitis adds an onstage narrator, Giselle LeBleu Gant, who is an engaging performer, but her presence changes the nature of the play. She embodies the new subtitle, the “table work,” a term of art that refers to the initial stages of theater rehearsal when the company sits around a table, scripts in hand, and the stage directions are spoken aloud, rather than enacted.

In this Mud some of the stage directions were actually performed, and some were merely read aloud. For example, throughout the play Mae irons on a laminated folding table of the sort often seen in rehearsal rooms, but some of the stage directions referring to her laundry activities are read aloud rather than acted out. The logic of these choices was unclear.

The other major addition is Glass’s music, which is finely paired with the texts in both instances. In Mud, the music of keyboardist Michael A. Ferrara remained in the background, though he was present onstage. For Drowning, Ferrara was joined by harpist Lavinia Maijer in what the program notes termed a “pocket opera.” Glass, who began his collaborations with Mabou Mines in the 1960s, describes his work as “music with repetitive structures,” eschewing the term “minimalism.” Here his compositions subtly embraced and supported Fornés’s stories. Perhaps best known for his opera Einstein on the Beach, Glass has produced a vast body of work and distinguished himself as one of the most important composers of his generation.

“Drowning, an Opera” by María Irene Fornés, directed by JoAnne Akalaitis, music by Philip Glass, performers: from left, Gregory Purnhagen, Peter Stewart, Mabou Mines (photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Drowning, like Mud, tells its story swiftly, in a handful of pages, sketching a love affair from the first moment of desire to the bitter end. All the characters, including the jilted lover, are described in the script as potato-heads with bodies “like seals or sea lions” and shiny, oily flesh covered in warts. Their revolting exterior (convincingly executed by makeup designer Gabrielle Vincent) brands them as unlovable and oddly makes the story feel more universal: their repulsiveness makes them vulnerable and draws empathy.

Clocking in at under half an hour, Glass’s “pocket opera” has all of the pathos and tragic narrative arc of a five-hour epic thanks to Fornés’s tight script and visual premise. Pea’s love, like Cyrano de Bergerac’s, is a story of unattainability.

As one actor sang and gestured, the other would often re-enact the speaker’s gesture, suggesting an extreme form of empathetic listening. Gregory Purnhagen (Pea), Peter Stewart (Roe), and Brandon Hynum (Stephen) sang tenderly, their voices well tuned to the size and acoustics of this tidy theater space.

Kaye Voyce, credited with both the scenic and costume design, stuck to the bare essentials of a table reading in Mud (a table, a few chairs, and the props gathered at the foot of the narrator and unused for the most part) and conjured the setting of Drowning with a pair of garden chairs and table in fanciful wrought iron. Her costumes for Mud were unexceptional, perhaps overdone in the case of Henry whose spiffy jacket and tie seemed to go too far in differentiating him, since he appears to be more or less as broke as Lloyd and Mae. For Drowning, Voyce let herself go: the fat suits beneath boldly patterned sweaters and jackets and ballooning trousers make a joyful visual display of these repulsive men, particularly when they dance and gesture in unison; their garments sway pleasantly, almost hopefully.

The pocket opera, and indeed the scale of the entire production, suited the chamber-theater feel of Mabou Mines’s 99-seat space in the newly reopened CC122, formerly PS122. I had thought that Drowning as the shorter work would precede, but the order was quite right, moving from the mythical realism of Mud to the mundane love affair of Drowning, transposed into its own kind of myth by the strange physical presence of the characters and Glass’s excellent music.

Mud/Drowning: [table work]/an Opera is presented by Mabou Mines (150 First Avenue, 2nd Floor of 122 CC, Lower East Side, Manhattan) and Weathervane Productions, in association with Philip Glass’s Days and Nights Festival, and continues through March 7.

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Paul David Young

Paul David Young is a Contributing Editor for PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art (MIT Press). His book newARTtheatre: Evolutions of the Performance Aesthetic, about visual artists appropriating...