Obie Award-winning playwright Maria Irene Fornes is one of director Jason Nodler's "playwriting heroes." It says so, right in the program of Mud, Infernal Bridegroom Productions' first show in their newly refurbished theater on McKinney Street. Elegant, understated and often hysterically funny, this dark production provides the sort of homage that ought to gratify a writer of any stature, even one with Fornes's high-minded, avant-garde credentials.
Steven Barnett's cheerless one-room set, complete with squeaking torn-screen door and wobbly brown chairs, is the first indication that the world we are about to enter is a bleak one. Once Mae (Amy Bruce) and Lloyd (Troy Schulze) appear, we know for sure we are encountering the dirty bottom of the social order, where folks live and "die in the mud."
Mae's thin arms and bony face are earnestly hardworking and lovely in their plainness. She presses men's britches for a living, while cranky Lloyd sits around complaining. He's mad that Mae is going to school in her time off, learning how to read and write and do "arithmetic," a subject so foreign to Lloyd that he has to ask what it is. When Mae says it's just numbers, Lloyd sniffs and says he already knows about numbers. "I'm Lloyd," he snorts. "I have two pigs...My mother died when I was seven." Dark-haired Mae, who has very serious, heart-breaking eyes, tries to ignore him with a "fuck you," but Lloyd fights back because he is lonely and tired and sick. He can't "get it up" anymore, and he won't go to the clinic to find out what's wrong.
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In a fit of frustration, Mae finally goes to the clinic herself, coming back with a pamphlet on prostate disease that's too hard for her to read to the illiterate Lloyd. "It is advanced," she explains as she shoves the pamphlet in Lloyd's direction. "I'm not advanced, I'm intermediate." The stunning simplicity with which Bruce delivers these lines, revealing the extent of her character's ignorance, creates a surprising and poignant dignity for Mae.
We can't help but be glad when she asks Henry (Charlie Scott) into their lives. The bespectacled Henry is the only man Mae knows who can read the fancy multisyllabic medical terms. In a tragic and hilarious scene, Scott's dead-serious Henry haltingly reads the pamphlet aloud while Mae listens with deep intent and the humiliated Lloyd scrunches up his face in rage. Neither Lloyd nor Henry nor Mae knows what the words mean, but they sound very learned to Mae, and she's utterly smitten by the fact that Henry can pick his way through the language. She feels "base, hollow and offensive" as she is, but somehow Henry, with his smidgen of education, makes her feel better about herself.
Most stunning is that Mae and the rest of these illiterates allow us see ourselves in their very basic struggle to find meaning in an incomprehensibly cruel world. Mae knows enough to understand what she is missing from life. Lloyd, too, is not so ignorant that he can't understand what he lost once Henry moved into his house.
"I am a longing soul," says Mae, who speaks for all of us who watch her pitiable struggle to make something meaningful out of her life.
After nine long years of wandering through Houston's most unlikely performance spaces, including freeway underpasses and tattered shopping malls, Infernal Bridegroom Productions has finally found a home. And Jason Nodler, the avant-garde theater troupe's founder and artistic director, is positively giddy. He practically floats over the freshly painted black concrete floor, showing off the nooks and crannies of his theater with a boyish smile.
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The nondescript gray building east of downtown has housed everything from a low-rent grunge bar to a lower-rent transvestite/strip joint. Nodler opened In the Under Thunderloo, his first production ever, in this building back in the early '90s when it was a dance-till-you-puke punk club called Catal Hüyük.
IBP has changed a lot since 1993. And the McKinney building has changed a lot since IBP pocketed the keys in early October, just one month before opening. Nodler and his crew have managed to turn the dank, dark hole into a hip downtown palace. Of course, as with all theatrical magic, it took late hours of backbreaking work and lots of help from "a whole bunch of amazing volunteers," says Nodler. After two semi-sized loads of trash were hauled away, carpenters, contractors and kind people with paintbrushes built the performance space and painted risers for the seats Nodler purchased from a 1954 movie theater in Pecos, Texas. The volunteers also painted the expansive lobby in lush shades of burnt red and smoky black. They even scrubbed toilets.
"Here's the men's room. It's white," Nodler announces proudly, adding that IBP had to repaint the bathrooms a lighter color in order to pass inspection.
It's clear that after nine years of wanderlust the man and his company are proud to have a place to call home. Of course, it's only temporary. Infernal Bridegroom's capital campaign is going so well that the group hopes to buy a new space within the next three years. In the meantime, you can find Nodler hanging out on McKinney Street, enjoying the serendipitous symmetry of returning to the place where the whole thing started. Who says you can't go home again?