Alcyone Festival | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Alcyone Festival 

Halcyon Theatre explores the works of pioneering experimental playwright Maria Irene Fornes.

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Anna Bahow

Each of Halcyon Theatre's previous two Alcyone Festivals showcased plays by a number of women. This time around it's dedicated entirely to the work of a just one female playwright, Maria Irene Fornes. Though not as well known as she should be, Fornes, who turns 80 this year, has had a huge impact on since the 1960s. The influence of her work—with its fragmented storytelling, profound empathy, clear yet undidactic politics, and healthy dose of weird—can be seen in the plays of such disparate writers as Caryl Churchill, Tony Kushner, Paula Vogel, and Nilo Cruz.

In her dreamlike, semi-autobiographical Letters from Cuba (2000), the Havana-born Fornes juxtaposes a Cuban-American dancer's bohemian life in New York with the lives of her impoverished family back on the island. Based on actual correspondence from Fornes's older brother, the piece is suffused with tenderness and longing. But director Juan Castañeda's static, poorly paced production fails to capture the immigrant's almost surreal sense of existing in two places simultaneously.

Gina LoPiccolo fares better directing Sarita (1984), a musical melodrama about a fiery, doomed young Latina torn between a loutish Stanley Kowalski type and a hayseed who sings the excellent pickup line "You are Tahiti, I am Gauguin." Fornes imbues the lurid tale with feeling and her heroine with a fascinating, febrile passion. LoPiccolo's energetic staging benefits from an appealingly earnest cast who falter only when required to depict Sarita's final descent into madness.

The vastly different Summer in Gossensass (1995) is set in Victorian England and concerns a group of theater people trying to produce the first English production of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler—without any knowledge of the author's native Norwegian. There are elements of backstage farce and literary sleuthing, but mostly the play exists so that Fornes can expound on acting technique and the writing process. It's somewhat interesting chatter, and director Lavina Jadhwani does what she can to infuse it with spirit. But theatrically speaking, it's inert.

Originally an opera libretto, the bilingual text of Manual for a Desperate Crossing (1996) is based on interviews with some of the thousands of Cuban balseros ("rafters") whose economic desperation drove them to set out for Florida on homemade rafts in 1994. To describe the difficult journey, Fornes transforms the everyday speech of the refugees into surprisingly poetic, incantatory choral passages. Marooned on a small platform in the center of a blank stage, the cast of seven in Coya Paz's staging present a moving picture of human dignity amid suffering.

The festival's highlight is What of the Night? (1989), a collection of four masterful one-acts that chart the coarsening effect of greed and dog-eat-dogism on an American family over several decades. Progressing from Depression-era poverty to postwar plenty to postapocalyptic economic collapse, Fornes uses increasingly grotesque and unreal scenes to show how constant scrapping, scrounging, and selling deform and dehumanize. By the end the characters are fighting over scraps of meat like animals. Margo Gray's grimy, savagely acted production is pitch-perfect and harrowing.

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