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Theater And Brussels Sprouts

February 20, 2008

Should theater's primary aim be to be good for you like brussels sprouts or a cross-country run?American Conservatory Theater's production of Athol Fugard's Blood Knot certainly takes itself very seriously. So seriously in fact, that the company sent the two actors in the production -- Jack Willis and Steven Anthony Jones -- off to South Africa for two weeks "to help the actors understand the cultural context" behind Fugard's 1964 play about the ways in which race issues trump family ties.

Yet despite ACT's attempt to convey the "Importance" of this play, I felt largely unmoved. Instead, it comes across largely as something that we should experience because it's good for us rather than because it's engrossing. The actors, sensing the momentousness of their parts, bellowed and declaimed in accents that sounded less Afrikaans than Alsatian. Tracy Chapman's soulful musical score, though lovely, told us what emotion to feel rather than let us feel it ourselves. Fugard's scenario about two brothers -- one light-skinned and one dark -- pinioned by racial politics -- seemed extremely remote. One could appreciate the vividness of metaphors like the symbol of feet in pain / shoes that don't fit from an intellectual perspective, but the richness of the writing largely failed to make an visceral impact.

The main problem might be to do with context. How can you put on a play like this in one of the most lavish auditoriums in well-heeled San Francisco in 2008 and expect it to have anything near the impact that it had in 1964 when Fugard and his friend Zakes Mokae gave a clandestine one-night-only performance of the play in an abandoned Johannesburg button factory at a time when the apartheid government banned multi-racial events? The fact that February is Black History Month doesn't quite create the same sense of drama, I'm afraid. You can adorn a stage with as much "faux shanty town" corrugated iron and distressed wooden planks as you like, but unless there's an intensity and urgency in the production that goes beyond finding a suitable play for two of ACT's core actors to perform in and answering some general civic malaise about race, the effort largely translates as theatrical brussels sprouts. Staging Blood Knot is undoubtedly a worthy endeavor. But in this case it feels like a dead thing; something to read about in an encyclopedia or stare at through glass at a museum.

I often think that Fugard's plays work better in more intimate settings. A few years ago, for instance, I saw a tiny production of the playwright's The Road to Mecca in a black-box space in downtown San Francisco. The acting was powerful because the actors concentrated on telling us a story rather than getting mired in performing the play's issues. The production's aesthetic was genuinely scrappy and threadbare: Costumes were minimal and the set revolved around a few colorful blankets and assorted props. In short, this staging felt closer in spirit to Fugard's furtive, under-the-radar approach to performance than ACT's grandiose attempt on the lofty Geary stage.


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