‘Mud’ slides into plot imbalance

by Chris Jones
Chicago Tribune

Sean Graney, the intellectually punkish artistic director of the Hypocrites, is a walking antidote for the jaded consumer of youthful off-Loop experiments. Even when you think you’ve seen every dysfunctional creative deviation known to the feverish mind of a fearless young Midwestern director, Graney and his willing cohorts manage to push things to a new level.

Graney sets Maria Irene Fornes’ “Mud” inside a tank. Literally.

The audience sits or stands outside a massive glass-and-wood contraption, free to wander at whim around the four sides of a building-within-a-theater — it’s as if the three human actors were components in some dated dinosaur diorama at the Field Museum. Graney intends his viewers to peer inside this exhibit of human misery from different vistas at different moments — flashing exterior lights provoke your movement.

It’s not an entirely fresh image — both the playwright Tony Kushner and the late movie director Derek Jarman were enamored of the talking-human-exhibit metaphor. But it is an admirably complete conception. Every detail of Graney’s highly specific production serves the idea of a comfortable and duplicitous we, peering in on miserable members of an underclass of our own creation. They may strive like immobilized flies but they’re stuck in the mud, nonetheless. Because we need it to be that way.

The $64 question, of course, is whether or not all this illuminates the script.

If you’re talking about that one, central political point — the hypocrisy of insisting that hard-working ordinary folks must pull themselves up by their bootstraps — then Graney makes an excellent case. And he weds it beautifully to Fornes’ short scenes. But there’s one major problem with this show — and it’s a recurring issue with Graney’s work.

Fornes’ play creates a tension between the real world — one we can recognize as our own — and a stylized theatrical depiction of cruelty. The power of “Mud” lies in that razor-sharp divide. But Graney’s show is so invested in a grotesque metaphor that the characters lose much of their humanity and vulnerability. Especially as acted here by Halena Kays, Geoff Button and Robert McLean — passionate, capable actors all but not necessarily right for these roles — Fornes’ pathetic trio read like tragicomic creations in someone’s existentialist experiment. You can’t believe they exist.

That’s not to say Fornes wrote realistic plays. Of course not. But her work does need a foot in the credibly mundane for its language to really work. Instead of always flinging himself into the dark recesses of the mind, Graney needs to find more of that tension.

Actually, that would mean the actors have to take more risks. Here, they mostly look like they’re playing rather than living. It’s an impressive, 75-minute game — on the most fascinating of boards. But while we’re up for throwing dice around, it’s no substitute for life.