Migdalia Cruz’s Fur (presented by Boundless Theatre Company at Next Door @NYTW) has the sensibility of a folk tale, the coherency of a fever dream, and the trappings of a horror movie. It’s an unsettling piece of theater. After you’ve seen it, don’t be surprised if it noses its way into your psyche and burrows into your personal dreamscape.
This production, directed by Elena Araoz, is the play’s New York City premiere. (It debuted in Chicago in 1995.) According to Cruz’s stage directions, it takes place in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles suburb, but the playwright isn’t necessarily concerned about specifics of time or place. In fact, the play seems to transpire in some shadowy corner of the collective unconscious.
Regina Garcia’s set depicts a dark basement room with different aspects of sky visible from a small window back and above. (Maria-Cristina Fusté’s lighting design is effective throughout). A large wire cage, the size of a backyard tool shed or a small chicken coop, occupies much of the playing area. References are made to a pet shop on the unseen main floor of the building, but this store may have shuttered following the outbreak of a virus that took its toll on the pet stock.
Michael (Danny Bolero) inherited the store, but he is most concerned now with what’s in that cage in the basement: a woman named Citrona (Monica Steuer), who is covered from head to toe with fur. Obsessed with freak-show specimens (especially of the hirsute sort, it seems), Michael has purchased Citrona from her mother. He is deeply attracted to his captive’s “beauty,” and his use of that word is not ironic. The more different something is, he proclaims, “the more beautiful it can be.” Soon, he hires a young woman named Nena (Ashley-Marie Ortiz) to trap rabbits and other small game to be fed to his beloved.
A conflict emerges when Citrona falls in love with the conventionally beautiful Nena. Nena, meanwhile, carries a torch for Michael. It’s a triangle that seems at times to echo Jean-Paul Sartre’s dictum from No Exit that “Hell is other people.” With Fur’s focus on the bestial side of human nature, however, perhaps the line should be emended to “Hell is other mammals.”
It seems initially that Citrona is a feral being who cannot speak or otherwise behave in a human fashion, but Cruz gives the character soliloquies suggesting that she is someone who relishes language. Are her speeches, then, poetic expressions of her unarticulated thoughts? Possibly. In some scenes, though, she seems actually to converse with the other characters. We learn, too, that in her earlier life, she entertained people by singing Beatles songs. (There are frequent excerpts from the group’s songbook heard throughout the play.) On the other hand, Citrona may possess senses that humans don’t share. She claims, for instance, to be able to hear light and smell color.
A major focus of the work appears to be the fine line in the human psyche separating bestial impulses from human emotions. Cruz seems to want to remind us that even the most noble human sentiments are rooted in so-called baser instincts: the need to feed, breed and protect territory. Perhaps she’s suggesting that mindfulness about the origin of such instincts is important. Or maybe not. This is one of those plays that prompt all sorts of questions but evade clear answers.
The actors here all help create Fur’s discomfiting quality. When, early in the play, Bolero’s Michael coos at the frightened Citrona, he sounds like a parent comforting a child, but there are sexual overtones in his voice that make him come off as deeply creepy. Ortiz’ performance is less nuanced than Bolero’s. Still, when Nena talks about soothing the creatures she captures before promptly killing them, the effect is similarly disturbing.
Steuer’s fine performance is reason enough to see the show. She makes Citrona a bundle of contrasting behaviors: timidity, defensive aggression, unbridled libidinousness. Tall and apparently strong, she nevertheless makes the character seem stressed and unhealthy. The costume that designer Sarita Fellows has crafted gives Citrona’s coat of fur a mangy and sad appearance. Steuer snarls some of her character’s lines with sarcastic fury and touches of humor. When Citrona contemplates her seduction of Nena, there’s a hint of self-deprecation in Steuer’s voice as she deadpans, “It’s times like this I wish I knew some Marvin Gaye songs.” Such glints of campiness alleviate the disquieting aspects of the play somewhat.
While it’s effectively staged, Fur is not for everyone. If you’re a theatergoer who avoids plays with violent, visceral content or who is put off by ambiguity, you may decide to take a pass on it. Those who go, though, are not likely to soon forget the production or its unusual central character.
Fur (through November 24, 2019)
Boundless Theatre Company, presented as part of Next Door @NYTW
Fourth Street Theatre, 33 East 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.nytw.org/show/fur
Running time: 105 minutes with no intermission