The Maria Irene Fornes Play Marathon We Need Right Now

A 12-hour tribute to the greatest playwright you've never heard of.

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Fornes
Maria Irene Fornes. Playwright.

On Mon., Aug. 27, a 12-hour marathon of staged readings at Public Theater will celebrate the life and work of Cuban-born playwright Maria Irene Fornes. The event falls amidst an encore week of screenings of an extraordinary documentary about Fornes, called The Rest I Make Up, that premiered at the Museum of Modern Art earlier this year.

The marathon idea emerged from a group of activist theater makers, artists and journalists called The Women’s Salon. “We would get together once a month on a Sunday,” recalled a core organizer, the legendary director JoAnne Akalaitis. “The group was ad hoc, messy, had no moderator, no speaker, no panel, just the desire to get together and read something — and an obvious idea was to read Irene’s plays.” The group also focused on actions, such as a November 2017 event to commemorate 100 years of women’s suffrage in New York.

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The Women’s Salon disbanded in early 2018, feeling “they’d talked themselves out.” But then, sparked by the premiere screening of The Rest I Make Up, Akalaitis and the director of the film, Michelle Memran, began to discuss how to showcase the playwright’s versatile output, the whole avant-garde universe of her plays. When the encore screenings were announced for August, the stars suddenly aligned for a marathon. “Irene makes a lot of sense for us now,” explains Akalaitis. “As a feminist, as an immigrant, as a woman, as a person with an illness [Alzheimer’s] that more and more people have, as someone whose creative voice was always so surprising and different and astonishing and surprising. It all seemed a fortuitous time to get together and spend some time with Irene’s work.”

Beginning at noon on Aug. 27 at the Public’s Shiva Theater and ending at midnight, four programs of two hours and 40 minutes each will run in sequence, featuring a cornucopia of uptown and downtown talent:

  • Program 1: 12-2:40pm
    Dr. Kheal (David Greenspan); A Vietnamese Wedding (cast TBA); Tango Palace (Bill Camp, Orlando Pabotoy); Balseros (Carmelita Tropicana, Emilio Delgado).
  • Program 2: 3-5:40pm
    Songs from Molly’s Dream (Nicole Lewis) and The Successful Life of 3 (Erin Markey, Michael Cerveris); The Conduct of Life (Alfredo Narciso, Florencia Lozano, Annie Henk, Flora Diaz, Bobby Plasencia); Mud (Bill Camp, Orlando Pabotoy, TBA).
  • Program 3: 6-8:40pm
    Excerpted Fefu and Her Friends (Kathleen Chalfant, Sophia Skiles, Tracie Morris, Joan MacIntosh, Ellen McLaughlin, Carmelita Tropicana, Petronia Paley); Monologues from selected works; Drowning (cast TBA); The Danube (Beth Manspeizer, Christian Baskous, Timothy Doyle, Rocco Sisto).
  • Program 4: 9-11:45pm
    Excerpted What of the Night? (Vanessa Aspillaga, Flora Diaz, MaYaa Boateng, Sifiso Mabena, Heidi Schreck, David Greenspan, Michael Cerveris, Joan MacIntosh + cast TBA); Letters from Cuba (Carlo Albán, Emilio Delgado); Songs from Promenade (Tom Phelan, Erin Markey, Steve Ali, Elisabeth Siegel, Sophie Freedman, Sophie Laruelle, Chloé Worthington, Sam Balzac, Britt Berke).

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Memran says that the marathon is ultimately “about the community of Irene and bringing people in who care deeply about her work or have always been a fan of her work or who were directed by her.” As a journalist, she added, being inside the theater-making process has been marvelous. “Just to sit around a table talking about Irene or the arc of a play or how she developed The Danube or what do we excerpt from Fefu and Her Friends — it’s fascinating to watch all these theater luminaries talk about how they do things.”

To facilitate a short rehearsal process, each selected play has a director with experience on their assigned play; their love for the material is a given. As many of the actors will appear in multiple plays, the marathon will also offer audiences a repertory company feel.

Akalaitis, who directs Mud in Program 2, underscored that the marathon is not a scholarly conference on Fornes, but rather “theater people creating an event that reveals the work of someone who many people don’t know.” Indeed, the event’s seat-of-the-pants advertising campaign heralds a “12-hour tribute to the greatest playwright you’ve never heard of.”

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The marathon is also about, Akalaitis noted, a generational torch now in the process of being passed. (Now 88, Fornes lives in an Upper West Side nursing home, in the latter stages of her disease.) When she introduces Fornes’ plays to young actors, Akalaitis finds them “ignited by her language and her style — in the canon with the big guys like Beckett and Pinter and Caryl Churchill.”

Katie Pearl directs Fornes’ Pulitzer-nominated What of the Night? in Program 4. For her, the excitement is around a play whose economic lens seems incredibly relevant. “Four linked plays loosely follow a family over 80 years, during which you watch society disintegrate, and language and memory completely erode,” Pearl says. “It is an amazing expression of Irene’s obsessions and identities and themes that show up throughout all of her work.”

The Danube, in Program 3, has occasioned special interest from several quarters. The actress Estelle Parsons, as associate artistic director of The Actors Studio, has consulted on The Danube with her members over the years — including Beth Manspeizer, who appears in the marathon reading. Parsons also performed in a Studio production of Fornes’ The Office — where Jerome Robbins saw it and took it to Broadway in 1966 but without Parsons. That may have been just as well, for the ill-fated play never opened and remains Fornes’ single Broadway credit.

Parsons recalled that everything Fornes wrote, she attended. “I never could make much sense of [her plays], including The Danube, but then, when I get working on them, they make perfect sense to me.” She described audiences as “stunned” by the effect of Fornes’ work. “Because of doing Mud and The Danube, I’ve sat with many Studio audiences, and they do not fail to be profoundly involved with her ideas and her material,” Parsons says. “She is a genius in communicating with the real world a fantastic theatrical experience as entertainment.”

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Manspeizer adds that she’s been unpacking the possibilities for years of The Danube, which opens in naturalism yet descends into post-apocalyptic nightmare. “Was there some kind of nuclear fallout that happened?,” Manspeizer asks. “Was there another holocaust? Are people being taken away? Is there this pollution in the water? The characters are affected by it — we are wearing goggles; our bodies are deconstructing; we’re physically ill.”

Playwright and CFR contributor Martha Garvey worked in the literary department of Off-Broadway’s American Place Theatre (now the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre) back in 1984 when The Danube was casting and in rehearsal. Garvey recalls how  clearly Fornes envisioned her plays. “I could not imagine what it was going to look like on stage because of the way the text reads,” Garvey says. “Once I saw it, it was devastating. I’d been around avant-garde theater since college, but I couldn’t make the dramaturgical jump to what this would look like. This was the first time I really appreciated that you can write the best stage directions in the world and it will still not get you where you need to go.”

Akalaitis hopes audiences “will walk in and see something that strikes their heart and mind. “At this stage in my life and in the life of American culture, it feels right to get together and do something without a lot of worry or strategy or agendas or planning. Planning now seems perilous because of the present regime. I feel like we’ve got to get it all in. This is the time to make things.”