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The Summer in Gossensass.

Paula Vogel's richly deserved Pulitzer prize for How I Learned to Drive--the first ever awarded to an out lesbian nominated in the drama category--has secured her place in the pantheon of lesbian American dramatists. In that small but significant realm the leading figure is Maria Irene Fornes, the legendary off-Broadway playwright and director whose three dozen works for the stage have earned her more Obie Awards than anyone except Sam Shepard. Like Vogel's, Fornes's plays rarely feature overt lesbian content, yet they revel in the inner lives of women. Her latest, The Summer in Gossensass, which in April completed an off-Broadway run at the Judith Anderson Theatre in New York, is no exception.

On one level the play tells the story of how an American actress, Elizabeth Robins (Molly Powell), organized the London premiere of Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler in 1891. Before seeing or even reading the play, Elizabeth becomes obsessed with Hedda, not just as a plummy role to act but as a representation of a whole new way for women to be in the world--wild, independent, unconcerned with child rearing or the opinions of men. She and her actress friend Marion Lea (Clea Rivera) sit around speculating about Hedda's character, her nature, and her motives with the same intensity that people nowadays gossip about Madonna or Hillary Clinton. They pore over books to learn about Ibsen, Norwegian culture, and the 19th-century bohemian movement. And when Marion fishes two pages of the first English translation out of a wastebasket, they attack them like anthropologists who're scouring some indigenous votive object for significance. They read the first scene between Hedda and Thea aloud three different ways (parlor drama, Freudian upchuck, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?).

On another level the play is less concerned with telling a linear story than with embodying the essential qualities that drive theater people--their self-dramatization, their restless exploration of ideas, their ecstatic devotion. And along the way Fornes reveals her own process as a writer and drops provocative pearls of wisdom, such as "Onstage the most interesting characters are the ones who make life difficult for everyone else" or "Every good play has some filth." It may seem weird for a 68-year-old Cuban-born lesbian playwright to invest her imagination in a young American actress in London fixated on Henrik Ibsen, yet Fornes has her own obsession with Hedda Gabler. It was the first play she ever read, and in 1994 she directed it in Milwaukee. And she' movingly suggests that nurturing such obsessions is what keeps an artist going: "To be possessed and destroyed by your characters, that is how you are reborn--wiser, with ten hearts."

Fornes has never written conventional plays. For her first play, Tango Palace (written in 1963 while she was living with a would-be novelist named Susan Sontag), she collected phrases from a cookbook. Her first big success was the oddball musical Promenade (1969). In her most admired play, Fefu and Her Friends (1977), the audiences move around to view four scenes that take place simultaneously. Typically, The Summer in Gossensass is a disconcerting hybrid of naturalistic settings, formal language, dreamlike eruptions of bizarre behavior, and nonlinear narrative. At times it seems less like a play than a graduate seminar in dramaturgy. Fornes is a quirky, fiercely original talent more admired by critics and scholars than by the general public but no less worthy for that. In a burger-and-fries culture, her work is a welcome serving of ceviche.
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Author:Shewey, Don
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:May 26, 1998
Words:577
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