Friday, September 3, 2010

Playing in the Woods, Part 2

Athol Fugard, the great South African playwright, attacked the apartheid system with great force in his plays. Indeed, he was one of the country's most renowned artists during that shameful period. (Chicago saw productions of three of his plays from that era earlier this year.) But his work didn't stop when Nelson Mandela was elected president. APT is presenting Exits and Entrances, his two-character play from 2004, in the Touchstone. And while it doesn't have the raw power of his earlier works, it's still and entertaining and moving play, with sterling performances from David Daniel and Ken Albers.

Exits and Entrances is a memory play, exploring the relationship between the young Fugard (Daniel) and Andre Huguenet (Albers), one of the greatest South African actors of his era. By the time the play starts, in 1956, his career is on the decline. His Capetown production of Oedipus the King has a cast of miscast locals including Fugard, only 24, a ludicrously young version of the Old Shepherd, who also serves as Huguenet's backstage assistant. In conversations through the course of the run, as well as a reunion five years later, the playwright learns about Huguenet's life, regrets, and views on theatre, and shares his own theatrical dreams, life regrets, and fierce desire to change the country's horrible injustices.

The script's real advantage is in the characters: Fugard supplies a clear-eyed version of himself as a romantic young man, and a titanic Huguenet. This is the kind of part that actors dream of--grandiosity whipsawing into insecurity, dreams and desires beaten but not destroyed. And Albers makes a meal of it, making us care about this larger-than-life man and feel for his pain and disappointment. Daniel, though clearly somewhat older than his character, provides an appealing audience surrogate, full of ideals and artistic fire.

The script isn't quite as strong plot-wise. While the characters sometimes disagree, their main conflicts are either internal or with South African society. Most of the dialogue, therefore, consists of telling stories from the past and arguing issues. It's interesting to watch, but a little short on drama. Even though the show is less than 90 minutes long, it sometimes sags.

But it's really a chance to watch two actors doing great work up close. And for those who love great acting, it's definitely worth a trip.


As You Like It is not named after its protagonist, like King Lear or Hamlet. But like them, it's unusually dependent on one performance: a production won't get far without a wonderful Rosalind. And the production at APT has found one in Hillary Clemens. She's completely lovable and delightful, with an easy command of the language and wonderful chemistry with Matt Schwader's Orlando. She's a strong center to Tim Ocel's lovely staging of one of Shakespeare's most complex comedies. The play is by turns hilarious, melancholy, philosophical, and life-affirming, and this production nails all of its moods.

Rosalind is the daughter of Duke Senior (Brian Mani), who was overthrown by his usurping younger brother, Frederick (Mani again), and exiled to the Forest of Arden. However, due to her friendship with Celia (Tiffany Scott), she is allowed to stay in the court. Orlando (Schwader) is the younger brother of Oliver (Darragh Kennan), who denies him his inheritance or any education and keeps him as virtual slave labor. Rosalind and Orlando fall in love at first sight when he comes to court and defeats the fearsome Charles (Michael Huftile), in a wrestling match. But just afterward Rosalind finds that she is being banished from the court. She, dressed as a boy, and Celia, dressed as a farmgirl, flee to the forest, where they encounter her father and his transplanted community, a group of lovestruck shepherds, and Orlando, on the run from his murderously angry brother.

The script balances a complex, quite silly plot with deep philosophical revelations and dizzy clowning, and it's tough to get them all right. But Ocel and company do it in the simplest way--playing the characters as real people with real problems. They're immensely likable, and our laughs are of recognition at frailties we share with the characters, rather than condescension. (One occasional exception is David Daniel's Touchstone, the fool: his clowning is often hilarious, but occasionally goes way too far outside the play's world, to jarring effect.)

Clemens leads the cast (which is excellent throughout), with able support from Scott, Schwader, James Ridge as the melancholy lord Jacques, and Nicholas Harazin and Ashleigh LaThrop as an unlikely rustinc couple. It's funny, exciting, and, in the end, deeply moving.


Check back soon for my review of Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest, the last show I saw at APT.

1 comment:

Sugarmama said...

Great to hear what Ken Albers is doing! I remember him fondly from is days with the residential company at the Cleveland Play House [probably in the 1970's and 1980's]. He was easy to look at & a very fine leading actor. Looks like he is deeply associated with APT.