Saturday, January 17, 2009

Mud at the Cuttingball Theatre through February 8

Paige Roger’s treatment of this thought provoking and intriguing adaptation of Cuban playwright Maria Irene Fornés work, Mud, was cast on, if not unusual terrain, certainly one those of us familiar with more urban settings are not as familiar with. I am not from the Midwest, and even though I have driven through places like Stockton and further south on my way to Los Angeles or even Fresno where one smells cow dung and imagine migrant laborers harking back to John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” or photographer Roland L. Freeman’s capture of the Mule Train led portion of the Poor People’s March on Washington called by Dr. Martin King in December 1967, the eve of his assassination. Images like these and the interior life depicted in the Steinbeck stories and Freman’s photos of rural America, came to mind as I took in the setting—white shirts hanging all over the kitchen where Mae ironed and cooked and ate with her family brother/lover Lloyd and lover/friend Henry. I have this affinity for the name Henry. It’s my grandfather’s name, the only grandfather I remember, but there the reference ends with this character (smile).

I love the simplicity of the setting, reflected perhaps in the simplicity of the characters Mae, who seems the only one of the trio who has some vision even if her short term memory is almost nonexistent. She is studying all the time, when not cooking or taking care of Lloyd and her new man, Henry, whom she appreciates most for his mind.

It’s kind of hard to figure out where this tale is headed: Lloyd is sick when we meet him, and can’t read or write. He is also unable to count. Mae reads and writes between other tasks—we hear her recite her lessons about sea creatures, sea horses and hermit crabs. One finds these lessons echoed by other characters like Lloyd who in early scenes seems almost dense and stupid, but actually does perceive and feel deeply for his sister-wife, who unceremoniously divorces him.

Yet, I am not prepared for the ending, but if I’d listened more carefully to Mae and Lloyd’s depiction of the hermit crab, then I wouldn’t have been shocked, just surprised. Is there a difference semantically here?

As the scenes shift there are loud combustions of sound, which I don’t understand and am happy when they cease. Maybe the cacophony is a tear in the cosmos a rip between the known and the vast unknown Mae is trying to move into—not all of it, just a portion where she is appreciated and happy.

I love it when she cries after Henry says grace before a meal. Her ability to find joy in the moment even when it’s so fleeting, even when she “can’t hold onto the words” or concepts. Tears cascade down her cheeks as she listens a second time. She tells Henry that her dad, who was bitter when his wife—Mae’s mother died, never said grace. It was almost as if he went to hell shortly thereafter, but not before he gave Mae a playmate, Lloyd. And then Dad died and Lloyd stayed.

Lloyd doesn’t seem to do much around the house or with his life. It is Mae who has dreams and wishes for more. Mae is misunderstood and this misunderstanding is the unraveling of everything hanging along the beams or underfoot. She is not violent, yet her quiet righteous indignation is palatable. She allows herself to be used by these men and when angered one can only ask, “What took you so long?”

Like many simple women who at some point in their lives realize they have a choice and perhaps it’s time to take it, Mae steps out off the page and into another life. It is not her one worries about afterwards though, it is the two men she leaves behind.

The story twists and turns and the language is so exquisite, the playwright’s use of the metaphor so skillful, one has to constantly revisit the language and imagery to find meaning. I just love the pale or dusty dullness of the set. It looks like a black and white TV minus a picture tube. Hazy is how I’d describe the setting. The white shirts and the occasional dabs of red blood it’s only hint at an undercurrent of vitality. It’s almost as if Mae, Lloyd and Henry live in a fishbowl and we are patrons looking in.

Mud is at The Cuttingball Theatre through February 8 at the Exit Theatre on Taylor in San Francisco. Call (415) 419-3584.


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