It's New Year's Eve 1989. A traveling carnival has set up shop outside a small town in the South African desert. Judging from the deserted midway, year's end in rural South Africa isn't the raucous affair it is in the USA. "When do things get going around here?" a white patron asks the sullen black watchman. In Athol Fugard's twenty-year-old drama Playland, currently being given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation by Mustard Seed Theatre, that might be the most pertinent question asked all night.
The answer: in Act Two.
Although Playland shares a kinship with Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit (Exhibit A: the EXIT sign on the playbill cover), this chance encounter between two strangers also feels like a South African Zoo Story. Like Sartre and Edward Albee, Fugard limited his telling to one act. (The play was later split into two acts.) But he used the first 45 minutes just to oil Playland's wheels. We meet Gideon le Roux (Charlie Barron), a bombastic idler with time on his hands and a bottle in his fist, and Martinus Zoeloe (Erik Kilpatrick), the quietly menacing night and day watchman. After Martinus likens the fierce desert sunset to the Day of Judgment ("Tonight I see the fires of eternal damnation"), we begin to sense that nothing about this mirthless carnival is as it first appeared. Perhaps the barren setting is a metaphor for a South Africa ground to dust by its apartheid policy. It's certainly a backdrop well suited to this encounter between Gideon and Martinus. For two men about to be driven mad by their haunted pasts, nothing sets the mood better than a ghost town.
That transformation unfolds slowly. Early lines like, "The secrets of my heart have nothing to do with you," are as obvious as the classic double take in farce. Do we doubt for a second that those secrets are going to get spilled? There's little that director Deanna Jent can do to mask the fact that for much of the play Gideon and Martinus are merely marking time until Fugard is willing to move the action forward. Nor can a clever set (designed by Courtney Sanazaro) compensate for the evening's early languor.
The playwright finally gets to the nub of the matter as each man reveals his past transgressions. But be warned: If you're not up to speed on the South African Border War (1966-1989), if you're not conversant with SWAPO (the South West Africa People's Organization), if you don't know terms like the oft-repeated dominees, there's a good chance you'll come away from this outpouring of angst feeling excluded.
When Playland debuted two decades ago, Fugard stated that it was "the most emotionally exhausting" play he'd ever written. It shows. The piece feels labored. Gideon exudes a jitterbug energy (and Charlie Barron is ever adept at keeping a stage kinetic), but the role itself is mostly sound and fury. By contrast, Martinus Zoeloe, who spent fifteen years in prison for killing a man, emerges as a towering figure. Erik Kilpatrick instills the role with a majestic yet simple dignity. His laser eyes cut through sham like a hot knife through butter. Though the reclusive Martinus is constantly forced to say stuff like, "I know how to watch the night," Kilpatrick brings much more to this character than words. His very stillness becomes eloquent; Martinus emerges as a study in mesmerizing mystery and commanding presence.
But one fully realized character does not a two-character play make. Playland too often reminds us of other plays. (The hopeful dawn at evening's end returns us to Albee territory.) What's missing is the spontaneity that gives a script its own identity and instills theater with a sense of surprising life.
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