“Mud” may be the single most depressing hour ever to take place at the HSSB Performing Arts Theater. That’s not to say it’s not a good play, it’s just that an hour packed full of f-bombs, freak accidents and fatal wounds doesn’t make for the finest night of family fun. “Mud” may not be the most enjoyable of experiences, but it is still a stellar showcase for some of the UCSB Department of Dramatic Art and the Division of Dance’s most promising upcoming talents.
The play centers around the struggles of Mae (Christy Escobar), as she tries to break free from her dirt-poor roots, first by attending school and then by marrying the better-educated and more refined older man Henry (Brennan Kelleher). Meanwhile, Mae is living with her childhood companion, the cantankerous and confrontational Lloyd (Dakotah Brown), who is a strange amalgamation of brother, mate and child to Mae. The three of them create a dichotomously riveting and repulsive love triangle, as they spend the better part of the hour yelling, crying and abusing themselves and each other.
Overall, the play is an affecting and arresting portrait of Mae’s struggle to transcend poverty and succeed at something – anything – other than pressing pants. Despite the extremely affective subject matter, the performance itself is tough to get into; it has no beginning, a protracted middle and a chilling ending. This combination creates an incredibly intense melee of confusion, discomfort and disorientation for the audience. Thank God the play is only an hour long, because any more than that might have left the already-bewildered folks in the bleachers at HSSB’s Performing Arts Theater seriously and permanently traumatized.
It’s not an easy hour by any means, but the fact that so much emotion can come from a mere hour’s worth of theater is no small feat. And, although the spare yet evocative set and costumes were perfectly on point; ultimately, much of the credit for the play’s power must be given to its actors.
As Mae, Escobar carries most of the play’s provocative dialogue, making hers the hardest part to pull off consistently. Furthermore, she provides the link that glues the other two characters together and serves as the audience’s focal point throughout the otherwise all-too-abstract plot of the play. Therefore, Escobar deserves some slack when it comes to her performance. With this in mind, it is no surprise that her acting suffered from a surfeit of emotion throughout the play. In fact, it seemed as though she was stuck on one emotional tone -angry, loud and on the verge of a big, melodramatic crying fit – once the first few lines of yelling got going at the beginning of the performance. As moving as this level of emotion is in small doses, it detracts from the overall authenticity and affectivity of her performance when there’s no emotional build-up before her various breakdowns. Despite this, the poor girl does seem to be trying really hard and, when she gets it, she really hits home. Unfortunately, this emotional depth doesn’t seem to appear until the very end of the play.
Brennan Kelleher’s performance also starts off a little slow – with many of his lines sounding like he’s just delivering words without much connection to their meaning or to the other actors on stage. Fortunately, Kelleher just needs a little time to build up his momentum, and once he does, he succeeds mightily at capturing a character who simultaneously serves as a welcome dose of sanity, a serious snob and another senseless shackle for Mae. Kelleher ultimately proves he is more than capable of carrying off a nuanced performance that is both emotionally and physically evocative.
However, it is truly Dakotah Brown’s performance as Lloyd that steals the show. Now, I must preface this with the disclaimer that I have met Dakotah – a friend’s roommate – prior to seeing him perform and have always been a fan of his, ahem, physique. With that said, Brown’s Lloyd is a dirty, disgusting, vile and vicious man – definitely not someone you would want to flirt with at a party. And yet, he is riveting. His performance is the most subtle of the three actors, with his physicality delivering much of the emotion of his performance. Despite the fact that he spends a large portion of the play silently observing what goes on, he is constantly and consistently both engaged and engaging, providing the audience with a steady stream of smoldering emotions – much of which comes straight from his eyes. This may be Brown’s first major performance at UCSB, but here’s hoping it’s not his last. Who cares if he’s hot? The boy can act.
Overall, “Mud” is a murky affair indeed. It’s an intense and seriously sad play, but it is powerful nonetheless. Despite the fact that its bare-bones plot structure makes it hard to get engaged in a story that is already difficult to watch, the play succeeds largely because of the way in which it showcases the talents of its actors. Consequently, “Mud” may not be perfect as a play, but it is the perfect way to see some of UCSB’s best up-and-coming talents in the intimate setting of the HSSB Performing Arts Theater. It may be the most depressing hour HSSB has ever hosted, but at least it will make taking midterms and finals in the building feel like so much more fun in comparison.