Playwright Maria Irene Fornes is the grand dame of avant-garde, off-off-Broadway theater. Over the last 35 years, her work, which includes such elemental titles as Mud and Drowning, has garnered eight Obies and inspired a whole new generation of dramatists, including hugely successful artists such as Tony Kushner, of Angels in America fame, and Suzan-Lori Parks, who penned Fucking A, which premiered in February at DiverseWorks in an Infernal Bridegroom production (see "Kicking A," February 24). Fornes's work is so original the Village Voice proclaimed she has "redefined American drama as profoundly as Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller."
Yet despite the undeniable importance of Fornes's large body of work -- nearly 40 plays -- her scripts are not for everyone. She's an artist who believes that "if art is to inspire us, we must not be too eager to understand." "If we understand too readily," she says, "our understanding will, most likely, be meaningless. It will have no consequences. We must be patient with ourselves." In other words, don't go to her shows expecting to guzzle a couple of beers, then kick back and be entertained. Fornes will make you dance for your dinner, and she'll shoot bullets at your feet while you do it. At least that's how it feels sitting in the audience at Atomic Cafe and watching Fornes's The Danube, co-produced by Infernal Bridegroom Productions and Bobbindoctrin Puppet Theatre.
Of course, weirdness is director Jason Nodler's forte. He and IBP have given us everything from a superhero named Doily Boy to dancing six-foot roaches to a futuristic world in which bounty hunters cut the testicles off their captives. And Joel Orr, director of Bobbindoctrin, ranks equally high on the bizarre scale. Gorgeous, delicate and sometimes awe-inspiring, Orr's intricate puppets have been seen on various stages around town doing some wonderfully nasty -- and very unpuppetlike -- things. These fornicating and murderous little handheld beings are some of Houston's vilest performers.
So when you put these two companies together and give them a Fornes script, you know you're going to get a night full of sometimes breathtaking, sometimes soporific and always head-scratching theater unlike anything else on a local stage.
Steven K. Barnett's exquisite set, built into the wide-open space at Atomic Cafe, creates a painterly stage of rough-hewn planks, framed at the corners with towering four-by-fours. Across the back wall hangs a series of finely painted drops that look (at least in the beginning scenes) like wall-size postcards from the Hungarian countryside where Paul (Troy Schulze) is visiting. Like any tourist, he sips his coffee in the musky, ancient storefronts of Budapest, sightsees along the green and flowering valleys of the Danube and suppers in quaint cafes, eating "beef broth" and "hot ham." Guiding him through his visit is a voice-over Hungarian language tape that tells us the lines before the actors say them. With robotic precision and polite smiles, Paul encounters a handful of Hungarians.
Sandor (Charlie Scott) is the portly, friendly stranger who ever-so-kindly offers to show Paul the sights. Eve (Amy Bruce) is his pretty, demure daughter who "enjoys movies." Kovacs (Kyle Sturdivant) is the always smiling neighbor who appears out of nowhere.
The absurd and surreal nature of the tapes is obvious from the start. Scenes are divided into "units" of "basic sentences," beginning with the banal introductions between Paul and Sandor: "Are you Hungarian?" "Take a seat." "How's the weather?" "I've come here to study and work." They become increasingly bizarre to the point of being grotesque; at one point, Kovacs and Sandor politely name, in oppressive detail, each of their relatives and their relatives' relatives, along with their occupations -- a seemingly unending list that includes waiter, teacher, tailor, shoemaker, carpenter, barber, clerk, etc., etc.
Absurd and strange, these scenes are mildly amusing though completely opaque in meaning. Some would sniff that they're just plain peculiar. But then there is a tiny moment about 20 minutes into the show that ought to make any active listener sit up and lean forward. It is here that Sandor interrupts the trivial conversation to say rather plaintively, "I don't see very much poetry in the future, do you?" Paul, who asks to see the "economic museum" while sightseeing, replies simply, "No." Placed next to this slim statement, the earlier scenes begin to bubble with all kinds of literary intention. Fornes's lesson -- she has said that good drama should "teach something true" -- begins to emerge from the foggy darkness. (Yes, there's a fog machine that produces oodles of vapors, and much shadowy darkness dapples the stage throughout the night.) There's something utterly grotesque in these scenes, in their ability to convey how modern life has become infected with trivialities.
At one point, Eve faints and falls to the floor in a restaurant where she and Paul are having a polite meal of broth. Neither Paul nor the waiter can stop their ridiculous discussion in order to assist Eve, who is obviously sick. Soon, the whole town is sick. Mundane questions about the weather are always answered with the same sentence: "The weather is bad." Since they are limited to their language-tape script, the characters must speak about their pain through woefully inadequate metaphors about the weather. Finally they abandon the useless script and look for some other, more relevant means with which to articulate their pain, loss and grief.
To recap: The modern-day world is informed by lots of stupid stuff that has no real meaning; poetry is dead; and words will always fail us. Perhaps that's too reductive. There's also a self-referential play within the play done with some of the most beautiful puppets Bobbindoctrin has ever built. Astonishingly moving, even breathtaking at times, the puppet show is perhaps the most significant moment in this production. The actors stand in plain view as they manipulate the miniature versions of themselves. Then something utterly magical happens: The actors, who clearly have been working very hard, seem to forget themselves as they move their tiny puppets about a miniature version of the stage. And in those moments, the urgent message that Fornes wants to teach us radiates from the characters' heartbreaking faces that are concentrating so hard on the little people in their hands: Life is painfully small. Live it as richly and as truthfully as you can. It's a lesson well worth the work.
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