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Theatre in Review: Tumacho (Clubbed Thumb)/Mud/Drowning (Mabou Mines)

Top: The cast of Tumacho. Photo: Quinn Corbin. Bottom: Gregory Purnhagen, Peter Stewart. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

Two new productions provide a snapshot of the downtown theatre aesthetic now and then. Tumacho, at the Connelly Theatre, is the latest effort of Ethan Lipton, the playwright/songwriter whose semi-cabaret entertainments No Place to Go and The Outer Space have provided some pleasant evenings at Joe's Pub. This is a full-fledged play with music, a semi-musical western spoof of uncertain intentions beyond indulging the kind of silliness I associate with the entertainment at children's birthday parties. Hardcore Lipton fans may disagree; to anyone looking for comedy with a little bite, caveat emptor.

Tumacho unfolds in a Wild West town sliding into extinction, its population having dropped from one thousand to twenty in an alarmingly short time. This is due in part to the laissez-faire policies of Evans, the do-nothing mayor, and even more to the presence of Bill Yardley, the gunslinger who keeps the population reliably culled. Adding to everyone's woes is the appearance of the title character, a kind of undead spirit who shows up from time to time. Or, as the show's cosmology has it, "When the streets run red with blood, and the clouds go upside down, then the three-legged coyote howls, for Tumacho's back in town."

As it happens, these conditions are met, and Prudence, a prim, middle-aged widow, is transformed into a supernatural hellion who sucks the blood of almost the entire supporting cast, turning them into cowboy zombies; like everything else in Tumacho, this notion has no staying power, but even when they snap back to life, the townspeople remain Prudence/Tumacho's slaves, devoting themselves to allaying her prodigious appetites.

Exactly why everyone involved felt the need at this moment to satirize Westerns remains unclear, since Tumacho has no real point of view, nor any interest in anything beyond the next gag. These are of a quality to make one think back nostalgically on the television variety shows of yesteryear, when this sort of thing would get wrapped up in ten minutes or less. For example, Evans enters the saloon, steps into the men's room, and we hear the sound of urination for several minutes. (Never say the sound designer, Tyler Kieffer, didn't earn his fee.) Told that the citizens want to discuss their future and how he plans to address it, Evans cagily responds, "How do I plan to address it? By addressing it. With a plan." Bill, swaggering about, brags, "As anyone in our town will tell you, I do do well -- every time." This cues a series of doo-doo jokes. Really. Other bits rely on non sequitur punchlines. When a cowboy, filled with remorse over an accidental killing, announces, "I know what I have to do!" a friend asks, "You're gonna dress up like a badger and move into my cellar?"

Leading the charge against Tumacho is the heroine, named Catalina Vucovich-Villalobos -- you can imagine the fun they have with that -- who hatches a plot to defeat the demon, using as a weapon Evans' extremely bad breath. (This apparently fulfills another prophecy, but we don't need to go into that.) When not worrying about being devoured by Tumacho, most of the cast is made to run around the stage in union suits; they also sing while manipulating cactus puppets, and, later, turn up wearing cactus-themed hats and gloves. And then there's the cutaway drop through which they stick their heads, pretending to be prairie dogs. Adorable, I tell you. Just adorable.

What's really remarkable is the vast store of talent that has been expended on this terminally cute, self-adoring nonsense. The cast includes the likes of Bill Buell, John Ellison Conlee, Randy Danson, Gibson Frazier, Andrew Garman, Andy Grotelueschen, Layla Khoshnoudi, Philippa Soo, and Chinaza Uche, all of whom have made far better impressions elsewhere; their collectively cheerful attitude here does them credit. David Zinn's saloon set, backed by a stunning, multicolored desert sunset, is a delight, made even more attractive by Jen Schriever's lighting. The prop and puppet designer, Raphael Mishler, provides all sorts of creative touches, especially a toy theatre with tiny horses used in the scenic transitions. The costumes, by Anita Yavich and Devario D. Simmons, are solid, as are Kieffer's sound design and Matthew Dean Marsh's musical direction.

Clearly, Leigh Silverman, the director, has assembled the best possible team and facilitated a carefree atmosphere. A couple of Lipton's songs are pleasant, and the script features an amusing variant of the old Abbott and Costello Who's on First? routine, which hangs on the use of the word "ineffable." But Tumacho is utterly toothless, an exercise in pointlessness for its own sake. The avant-garde theatre once provided pointed political commentary and/or a vision that differed violently from the mainstream. Has it really come to this?

As a reminder of more creative times, you can't do much better than the double bill of María Irene Fornés one-acts, under the astringent direction of JoAnne Akalaitis. As playwrights go, Fornés was a pretty tough customer who often made little or no concession to audience sensibilities -- you either got her plays or you didn't -- and there's little evidence that she cared one way or the other. And yet, only a few minutes into Mud, the curtain raiser, I realized I was hanging on every word. The astringency of her vision and the precision of her language washed away the aftereffects of the cloying humor of Tumacho, which I had seen earlier in the day.

Mud centers on a triangle that, from the first line, is doomed. Indeed, there is a slightly Beckettian tinge to the situation. The drudge-like Mae is stuck with the filthy, unkempt, ailing Lloyd. He is a brutish know-nothing; she works at improving herself, attending school -- although, she freely admits, she cannot retain information. When Lloyd refuses to do anything about his illness, Mae enlists the rather more genteel Henry to help. For example, Henry, alone among them, is literate enough to read the informational pamphlet about Lloyd's illness -- not that that he understands a word of it.

As Lloyd declines, Mae replaces him with Henry, a situation that, briefly, seems sustainable, until Henry meets with disaster and Mae decides that she has to think about herself first. The tense, terse dialogue reveals Mud for what it is, a power struggle among characters utterly cut off from beauty and intellect. It is a powerful, pitiable piece of writing, although I'm not entirely convinced that Akalaitis' "table read" version, presenting the play in a semi-staged fashion, is the ideal approach. Adding to the difficulty, the cast at the performance I attended wasn't yet entirely in command of the material: One cast member had to call for a line, and everyone repeatedly stepped on each other's lines.

Still, Giselle LeBleu Gant, who serves as narrator, reading the stage directions, adds a great deal by following the action with such keen interest. And Wendy vanden Heuvel realizes Mae's most ruthless tendencies. Overall, the play retains a blunt-instrument quality that is hard to shake off.

Mud is felicitously paired (and not for the first time) with Drowning, a piece that, in previous productions, has seemed almost unbearably grotesque; here, it is transformed. Set in a European café, it features a trio of characters who have been made up to look morbidly obese, fitted out with pockmarked bullet heads. (The stunning makeup is by Gabrielle Vincent.) Two of them, Pea and Roe, discuss the photo of a woman they saw in a newspaper; what follows is a meditation -- sometimes whimsical, sometimes brutal -- about the yearnings of the flesh. Staged in 2016 at Signature Theatre -- at a snail's pace, with the actors speaking in a manner suggesting mental impairment or the effects of a stroke -- it was an ordeal to watch. Here it has been made into a pocket opera, set to a score by Philip Glass. The lovely music has an alchemical effect, turning the piece into something lyrical and terribly sad. The music has a clarifying effect on the full evening: In both plays, Fornés turns her gaze on characters who inhabit moonscapes where the spirit and intellect mean nothing and where love seemingly doesn't exist; her consideration of them is unsparing and shattering in its effect.

Drowning is gorgeously sung by Gregory Purnhagen and Peter Stewart, accompanied by the fine musical director, Michael A. Ferrara, on keyboard and, at the performance I attended, Lavinia Meije on harp. Both productions benefit from the (intentionally) hideous wallpapered environment designed by Kaye Voyce, who also supplied Drowning's bizarrely effective costumes. Thomas Dunn's lighting makes good use of uplighting effects from a strip unit located upstage; he also provides eerie yellow washes for the scenic transitions in Mud.

Neither Mud nor Drowning is an easy or accessible piece, but both are the work of a playwright who saw life differently and dared us to immerse ourselves in the disoriention of her singular point of view. The plays are possessed of a rigor not always seen in much new playwriting, and it's a quality that is sorely missed. We don't need to be pandered to; most of the time, what we need in theatre is a good, vigorous shake. Fornés was always ready to provide that. -- David Barbour


(24 February 2020)

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