From the Sixties through the Nineties, the Cuban-born María Irene Fornés was a dominant figure in the avant-garde theater scene. Her playful, seductive, demanding works took off from Samuel Beckett and the Theatre of the Absurd and then moved stealthily into subconscious realms — and claustrophobic rooms — of her own. She directed and designed many of her own productions, and her influence extended to the numerous playwriting students she taught at the INTAR Theatre, like Eduardo Machado and Caridad Svich. Fornés is still with us — she is 87 — but she has been lost to dementia since around the turn of the last century. (Her final new play was Letters From Cuba, from 2000.)
There is a very grim sort of humor in the text of Fornés’s Mud, which was first produced in 1983 and then revived at the Signature Theatre in 1999. That humor emerges occasionally in this new production from the Boundless Theatre Company, and Regina García’s vice-like design of the wooden room that traps the three main characters is certainly Fornésian enough. The play’s heroine, Mae (Nicole Villamil), is a young woman in a rural area who would like to better herself through education. But she is hampered in this pursuit by Lloyd (Julian Elijah Martinez), the ailing man she lives with, who was taken in by Mae’s late father as a kid. Lloyd embodies a variety of roles in his relationship with Mae — brother, former lover, near-impotent husband — and he is a drag on all counts.
Mae lures their older neighbor, Henry (Nelson Avidon), into their cramped home to read a medical pamphlet for Lloyd, and Villamil makes it clear that what Mae is lusting for is the contents of Henry’s brain — she even encompasses his whole head with her hands when she kisses him. Henry soon moves in and usurps Lloyd, but the power dynamic between them shifts after Henry suffers a stroke. In a scene that mixes disgust with terror, the disabled Henry says that he is still “sexual” and can bring pleasure to Mae. He drags himself over to her and insists on pressing his erection into her, echoing an earlier moment when Lloyd insisted that Mae touch his own erection. These are broken figures, yet they still insist on their former privileges and powers as men. Fornés provides a smidgen of pity for Lloyd and Henry before finally giving them both the back of her hand; this tricky maneuver stays true to the tone of her play, which is uncommonly blunt and compressed, closed-down yet also somehow open to interpretation.
Villamil gives a very risky performance of mental slowness here, open-faced and sometimes openmouthed, and this choice registers strongly when Mae says that she feels “hollow and offensive,” a moment where she sees herself and her situation very clearly. Her striving for something better has a slightly sentimental feeling in this production, whereas Fornés seems to have intended something darker and nastier. Maybe what needs to be done with Mud is to stage it and treat it like an all-out bleak comedy and see what happens — for Fornés always loved to take chances.