* Written and directed by Maria Irene Fornés * The Women’s Project & Productions, Judith Anderson Theater, New York City

Paula Vogel’s richly deserved Pulitzer Prize for How I Learned to Drive -- the first ever awarded to an out lesbian -- has secured her place in the pantheon of lesbian American dramatists. In that small but significant realm, the leading figure is Maria Irene Fornés, 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, Fornés’s plays rarely feature overt lesbian content yet they revel in the inner lives of women. Her latest, The Summer in Gossensass, which recently completed an Off-Broadway run 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, Robins 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 scouring some indigenous votive object for significance. They read the first scene between Hedda and Thea aloud three different ways (as parlor drama, Freudian upchuck, and 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, Fornés 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 Fornés has her own obsession with Hedda Gabler. It was the first play she ever read, and she recently 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.”

Fornés 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, dream-like eruptions of bizarre behavior, and non-linear narrative. At times it seems less like a play than a graduate seminar in dramaturgy. Fornés is a quirky, fiercely original talent more admired by critics and scholars than the general public, but no less worthy for that. In a burger-and-fries culture, her work is a welcome serving of seviche.

The Advocate, May 26, 1998

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