Do you know the plays of 'theater god' María Irene Fornés? Festival Irene is your chance

Charles McNulty
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Theater Critic

The Cuban American playwright María Irene Fornés has done as much as any modern playwright to change the landscape of American theater.

Her spirit and sensibility were guiding forces in the off-off-Broadway movement, and her influence continues through the many writers she taught and the countless others she inspired.

Tony Kushner ("Angels in America") has said her "oeuvre is one of American drama's most important achievements." Paula Vogel ("How I Learned to Drive") has called her one of her three gods, along with John Guare and Caryl Churchill. Nilo Cruz ("Anna in the Tropics") proudly declares that he comes "from the Irene Fornés school."

Yet many inveterate theatergoers haven't even of heard of Fornés, never mind seen one of her plays. Festival Irene: Celebrating Master Playwright María Irene Fornés, an event by Hero Theatre that begins Thursday and runs through April 10 at the Rosenthal Theater at Inner-City Arts in downtown L.A., seeks to remedy this ignorance through a series of panel discussions and staged readings of such Fornés classics as "The Conduct of Life," "Mud," and "Fefu and Her Friends." (Audiences will have a voice in choosing which of the Fornés plays Hero Theatre will produce at the end of its current season.)

There also will be readings of plays by some of her most accomplished students, including Luis Alfaro, Caridad Svich and Eduardo Machado. Notables in the acting company include Ivonne Coll from "Jane the Virgin," Adam Rodriguez of "Empire," "Jane the Virgin" and "CSI: Miami," and Lesley Fera of "Pretty Little Liars." Proceeds from the festival will go in part toward a medical fund that has been established for the 85-year-old Fornés, who has been battling Alzheimer's disease for years, and in part toward Alzheimer's research.

It's important to preserve the cultural memory of this artist, but Fornés' work poses unique challenges. For one, it is difficult to fully appreciate her plays outside of their performance contexts.

"Promenade," her antic vaudeville musical (with music by Rev. Al Carmines) about two escaped prisoners, is exponentially more baffling on the page than on the stage, though her book is studded with such quintessential Fornés epigrams as "God gave us understanding just to confuse us."

Fornés often staged her own work, and her authorship was inseparable from her direction. She could be highly critical of other productions, and with good reason: It is exceedingly easy to get an erroneous impression of her style from well-intentioned but misbegotten efforts.

Trickier still, Fornés wrote in opposition to the institutional theater. Marginalized when she was active as a playwright, she has fallen into virtual obscurity since. Were it not for theater academics and artists, it's safe to say Fornés would be a footnote in theater history.

Ross Wetzsteon, the longtime theater editor of the Village Voice, which was the preeminent chronicler of Fornés' career, precisely captured the Fornés paradox in a 1986 Voice article: "Rarely reviewed in the weeklies, stupidly reviewed in the dailies, utterly unknown to the electronic media, unproduced by most of the country's major cultural centers and rarely anthologized, she has nevertheless established herself, to a loyal and ardent following of Off-Off-Broadway theatergoers, as one of the half-dozen most gifted playwrights in the American theater."

The question of what constitutes Fornés' magic will have as many answers as answerers. Unlike Beckett, one of her formative influences, Fornés wasn't a virtuoso of a signature set of themes and practices. She constantly changed her paradigms, venturing off into new stylistic territory, rethinking and revising old work.

But there are recurring concerns. Her deep empathy with characters who struggle to educate themselves, to lift themselves up through reading and interaction with those more learned, is everywhere apparent in her work.

In "Mud," a play created and performed at the Padua Hills Festival in Claremont in 1983, Mae vows that she's going to go to school and learn new things so that she can leave her brutal life and "die clean." In "Fefu," the women transported into ecstasies by the prologue to Emma Sheridan Fry's "Educational Dramatics" have gathered to reformulate themselves in a community of compassion, healing, consciousness-raising and debate.

The autobiographical dimension of this is obvious. Fornés was an autodidact who learned English after coming to this country with her family at 15. She moved from painting to playwriting almost accidentally while trying to help her lover at the time, a young and ambitious teacher at Columbia University named Susan Sontag, write a novel. Fornés, who went on to found INTAR's Hispanic Playwrights-in-Residence Laboratory, an important New York incubator of new talent, knew from the start that education, like solitude, could be lovingly shared.

Fornés' plays cultivate in their readers and audiences new habits of attention. In her work, silence and stillness are typically more resonant than speech and scurry. Real emotion is conveyed with little emoting. Pictorial presentation turns out to reveal just as much profundity as psychological probing. Poetry and politics, rather than being mutually exclusive, derive from the same appreciation of human complexity.

Although she has been claimed by feminist and gay and lesbian critics, Fornés is adamantly anti-ideological. Theory doesn't interest her half as much as bodies, those storehouses of mute wisdom.

Her aesthetic embrace is wide, finding room for Ionesco, Chekhov, Brecht and the painter Edward Hopper. Fornés' philosophy of playwriting is to resist fixed intellectual patterns. Characters are too alive to be confined by ideas. Life for her is paradox — playful, mournful, always unpredictable. In the most violent of circumstances, as "The Conduct of Life" indelibly dramatizes, aching tenderness can reside beside stark terror.

In response to a question about utopia and theater for a special issue of Yale's Theater magazine, Fornés summed up a lifetime of thinking about the art of the stage: "If theater is to be successful it must be loved like one loves an animal that one wonders at. Not like one loves a formula. If people would love the theater like they love an animal, they would enjoy the theater and they would want to go to the theater. And if you asked them, 'What is utopia?' they would say, 'Theater is utopia.'"

Some sensibilities are too precious to lose.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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'Festival Irene'

Where: Inner-City Arts' Rosenthal Theater, 720 Kohler St., L.A.

When: Check theater for schedule. Runs Thursday to April 10.

Tickets: $12, $15; passes $40, $150

Info: (323) 893-3605, www.herotheatre.org

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