Dead Souls

Check your head: Gideon (Gary Murphy) and Martinus (James Austin Williams) face off in Athol Fugard's South African drama Playland

Pangea World Theater

December 31, 1989. South Africa.

Apartheid officially is no more. The African National Congress has been legalized. Mandela will be freed in two months. The South African Border War, a bloody, devastating, two-decade-long struggle between white government troops and black freedom fighters over the territory of South West Africa, has just ended. As the sun sets on 1989, South Africans face a dismantling of their society and the coming of an unfamiliar peace: What will their world be like now?

This uneasy dawn makes the setting for Athol Fugard's Playland, now being produced by Pangea World Theater. Fugard's script traps a black security guard and a white ex-soldier in front of a beat-up amusement park on New Year's Eve. They'll stay there until sunrise.

In some sense, we've been ruined for this kind of psychological drama, drowned in any number of lesser plays, TV shows, movies. We are decadent: We know all too well that by the end of the play these men will reach some kind of understanding--they might even hug, perhaps swaying a little to the dulcet tones of "We Are the World" or "Can You Feel the Love Tonight." We understand South Africa's strife with our minds but do not carry it in our beings. Having this luxury of distance, we anticipate any number of clichés. Gideon will surely learn the error of his racist ways, and he might learn a thing or two about himself along the way. Martinus, in turn, will be thrown into the role of passive nobility--the wise black man who sees past his pain to absolve Gideon--nay, all white men.

Fortunately Fugard offers dramatic craft a bit more advanced than, say, that of Full House, and his script doesn't make reconciliation so easy. Fugard's Martinus, for one, is not the picture of righteousness. He's passive by trade as the day and night watchman for a traveling carnival, yet he's also disturbed, and not inclined to serve as anyone's exemplar for forgiveness. (Question: "Day and night watchman? So when do you sleep?" Answer: "I don't sleep.") And, indeed, he doesn't: Martinus (Guthrie vet James Austin Williams) sits, wide-eyed and imposing, slowly sipping coffee from a thermos and watching.

His domain--and ours--is Playland. Like Martinus, we sit on the outskirts of the fair, surrounded by old tarps and strings of colored lights. The carnival itself is a mess of scaffolding and draperies, boards and netting. This mess forms patterns in the air--curves against angles--that also appear in the designs painted on the wooden steps and planks. Director Dipanker Mukherjee and set designer Ta-coumba Aiken have given us a 3-D Jackson Pollock junkyard which describes the intersection of lines and empty space.

Onto this scene walks Gideon Le Roux (Gary Murphy, on loan from Ireland) looking too stuffy for Playland in a tan suit and pink tie. He has arrived an hour early, too, finding only a closed gate and the figure of Martinus. So Gideon talks. And talks. "My resolution tonight, when midnight comes," he announces, pacing as compulsively as he smokes: "No bloody miseries next year! I don't care how I do it, but 1990 is going to be different. Even if it kills me, I'm going to get things going again." Playland will make everything better, he tells us giddily, although something is wrong here. Gideon's laughter is too loud.

Martinus, by contrast, speaks of the Day of Judgment, hellfire, and the Big Book with the tormented fervor of an apocalyptic street preacher (or of a man who doesn't sleep) and the cockiness of one who is sure he will be saved. But Martinus is sure he will go to Hell. Next to his name in the Big Book will be a mark: "Num-bah seeex," he says in a voice like distant thunder. Number Six, the Sixth Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Kill. Not out of self-defense, not to save women and children, and not--he assures ex-soldier Gideon--to defend your country against criminals and communists.

Agitated, Gideon stumbles away from this conversation into Playland. Under the blanket of incessant ramblings from the P.A. announcer, he lunges from booth to booth in a grotesque frenzy, shooting wooden ducks, throwing bean bags, screaming over the music. Murphy gives us a forced gaiety, a growing insanity. We try to comfort ourselves by looking at Martinus, watching from the gate, sipping coffee, contemplating damnation.

Gideon returns to Martinus in a frenzied depression--at which point the action becomes a bit confusing. In the interest of inserting an intermission, Mukherjee forces an episodic five-scene one-act into the structure of a two-act play. To do this, the director melds the first four scenes, making for some awkward continuity. When Martinus has had enough of Gideon's verbal abuse ("Talk ANC if you like--all this one-man-one-vote shit!"), the black man boils over. "This is my place! Go! This is the night watchman's place. You go somewhere else!" Then, because Gideon needs to be alone on stage for what would be the next scene, it is Martinus who gets up and leaves.

When the lights come up for the second act, it's after midnight. Playland has closed, but Martinus and Gideon are not done with each other--nor with Number Six. The actors perfect a game of cat and cat, with Murphy's Gideon stumbling wildly around the stage and Williams's Martinus sitting rock still, jaw set, nostrils flared. It becomes apparent that "underneath their skin color" these men are bound by sin, shame, and guilt. The pair still haunts the sites where they committed murder, lingering like the ghosts of their dead. The men have bodies that are empty shells, their spirits having departed with their victims.

There are no sweeping morals to this story. Instead, two specific men, stripped of their souls, tap dance around the truth in front of Playland. Hell, as Gideon says, is right here, right now. Freeing each other, and themselves, of their sins will be a hard-earned liberation.

Playland runs through October 4; 332-5206.

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