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Her championship season.

Cutting-edge playwright Maria Irene Fornes gets mainstream respect as New York's Signature Theatre Company presents a season of her works

Maria Irene Fornes is one of the best-kept secrets of the American theater. Hardcore musical theater buffs may recall her giddy 1969 collaboration with Al Carmines, Promenade, for which New York's prestigious Promenade Theater is named. Otherwise, the 69-year-old Cuban-born lesbian playwright is virtually unknown to the general public.

Nevertheless, Fornes is revered by theater artists, among them gay Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights Tony Kushner and Paula Vogel. In fact, Vogel will go so far as to say that "in the work of every American playwright at the end of the 20th century, there are only two stages: before she or he has read Maria Irene Fornes--and after."

The operative word there may be read. Although Fornes has worked steadily for more than 35 years, her plays have been widely published yet seldom performed outside New York. But now that situation may be changing. New York's influential Signature Theatre Company, which every year devotes its entire season to a single playwright, has chosen to greet Y2K with a Fornes retrospective.

"You can't imagine how wonderful it is!" says Fornes, whose discernible Cuban accent adds an extra layer to her natural effervescence. "To have a festival of three plays is wonderful for the author but also for the audience. They have retrospectives in film, in music, in painting all the time, but it's very rare in theater."

The Signature season began in September with the double bill of Mud, a 1983 play about a woman loved by two men, and Drowning, a brief and dreamlike 1986 adaptation of a Chekhov short stow. Next up is Enter the Night, a 1993 play about friendship, which opens November 23. The season will end in March with a new work, which the playwright will direct herself.

Fornes's plays characteristically depart from the kind of naturalistic dialogue to which we're accustomed from movies and TV shows. Yet they're not wacky absurdist exercises either. They reveal the inner lives of the characters (especially women) in an amazingly direct, poetic, and philosophical way without being sentimental or doctrinaire. A few of her more than three dozen plays have gay characters, but despite her own lesbian identity, Fornes doesn't make a special effort to represent gay life in her work.

"Being gay is not like being of another species," she says. "If you're gay, you're a person. What interests me is the mental and organic life of an individual. I'm writing about how people deal with things as an individual, not as a member of a type."

For instance, in Enter the Night, Tressa, a nurse, and her gay friend Jack--an off-Broadway stage manager whose lover has died of AIDS complications--cross-dress to reenact their favorite scene from the silent movie Broken Blossoms. Fornes suggests that this ritual expresses the tenderness and the sublime, almost religious feeling the two characters have for each other without sex--in fact, beyond sex.

Fornes's odd, poetic plays exist in a realm quite removed from the commercial world of Broadway drama, which is fine by her. Being given the Signature retrospective, Fornes says, "makes me feel I am now on the border of mainstream--not quite in it. To be mainstream frightens me. Then people put claims on you and expect things of you. I've always liked being on the border."

For more on Maria Irene Fornes and her plays, visit

Shewey is the editor of Out Front: Contemporary Gay and Lesbian Plays, published by Grove Press.
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Title Annotation:playwright Maria Irene Fornes
Author:Shewey, Don
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 9, 1999
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