Story: Garish lights welcome visitors to the seedy confines of “Playland,” a traveling amusement park camped out over the holidays in a village located in the “karoo,” or semi-desert region of South Africa. It’s New Year’s Eve 1989, and Gideon Le Roux arrives at the park intent on welcoming in the new year with fellow revelers. Instead, he spends most of his time debating with Martinus Zoeloe, the watchman for Playland. Martinus tells Gideon that he’s there around the clock, giving up sleep in order to ensure that all is well with the booths and rides that provide fleeting entertainment for the villagers.
Despite his requests to be left alone, Martinus is prodded and goaded by Gideon into finally revealing a dark incident in his past. While Gideon rails against the ‘dominees’ (priests) who he says have shoved religion down his throat, Martinus advises Gideon to keep the commandments, especially “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” To war veteran Gideon that admonition conjures up horrible memories of his involvement in the South African Border War that pitted the South African Defense Force against the South West People’s Organization (SWAPO) from 1966 to 1989. Between white Gideon’s psychological trauma of the recently-ended war and the lingering effects of South Africa’s segregationist apartheid policy on black Martinus, the two engage in an uneasy conversation in the drab maintenance area behind the glittering lights of the midway.
Highlights: South African playwright Athol Fugard in 2011 at long last received a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement, a recognition for his half-century of writing and producing plays about the horrible injustices wrought by the Republic of South Africa’s decades-long official policy of apartheid, which segregated inhabitants into four racial groups. Playland, which is set about five years before apartheid was officially abolished, deftly shows the emotional torment that beat down victims of that policy as well as the national psychological scars of the conflict known as the “African Vietnam.”
Other Info: Director Deanna Jent and actors Erik Kilpatrick and Charlie Barron maneuver around the often static flow of Fugard’s two-act drama to present a sobering interpretation of the story. Fugard is accomplished at creating commonplace characters whose humanity is numbed or callously ignored by official government policy, and here he blends the twin maladies of apartheid with South Africa’s border war in what later became the independent nation of Namibia. It takes quite a while to get to the core of Playland, but Jent’s guidance and the accomplished abilities of her two players offer a fine realization of this time and place.
Technically, the show is dazzling. Even before you set foot in the theater you’re welcomed by an old-fashioned popcorn booth out front. Courtney Sanazaro’s atmospheric set design includes an array of ‘rides’ hanging from the rafters or positioned behind the seating area, as well as an entrance where ushers take your ticket before allowing you entrance through an arch dimly illuminated by rows of colored lights provided by designer Bess Moynihan.
Meg Brinkley’s props feature a broken-down go-cart and a musty motorcycle as well as the accoutrements of the carny. The sound design so effectively realized by Kareem Deanes features South African music that brings to mind Paul Simon’s landmark album, Graceland, while dialect coach Richard Lewis provides meticulous instruction for the cadence of the players’ diction.
Lewis also provides the disembodied voice of the park impresario, “Barking Barney” Barkhuizen, inviting attendees to sample the wares and wonders of the traveling show with a lilt in his voice as smooth as any huckster’s.
What’s most interesting, though, is how the major discourse of the drama unfolds behind the sights and sounds of the midway, which only serves as brief interludes between the tete-a-tete discussions and confrontations of the two characters. Barron excels at veering between Gideon’s pushy bravado and exhaustive vulnerability, while Kilpatrick convincingly delineates the quiet torment that has plagued Martinus for years even as he tries to make amends with his own conscience for fighting injustice. Each actor bobs and weaves like a boxer in a prolonged bout with a formidable opponent.
Playland can be wearying and sluggish at times but also is highly rewarding in Jent’s finely wrought rendition on the Mustard Seed stage.
Group: Mustard Seed Theatre
Venue: Fine Arts Building, Fontbonne University, Wydown at Big Bend
Dates: February 9, 10, 11, 12
Tickets: $20-$25; contact 719-8060 or mustardseedtheatre.com
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb