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Theatre in Review: Boesman and Lena (Signature Theatre Company)

Thomas Silcott, Sahr Ngaujah and Zainab Jah. Photo: Joan Marcus.

It's hard to think of anything in world drama more influenced by Samuel Beckett than Boesman and Lena. The difference is that Waiting for Godot unfolds in an arid wasteland that existed only in Beckett's mind, while Athol Fugard's drama is set in a specific time and place. Indeed, his title characters seem like a South African counterpart to Vladimir and Estragon, Beckett's existential tramps, only Boesman and Lena must endure an existence that is even more brutal and unforgiving.

The play is set in the mudflats of Swartkops, a river town near Port Elizabeth, the setting of so many Fugard dramas. As stunningly rendered by set designer Susan Hilferty and lighting designer Amith Chandrashaker, it is a blasted moonscape, a place of perpetual night where the only living things are a couple of stunted, leafless trees. (You could stage Godot on it, and nobody would be the wiser.) Into it wander Boesman and Lena, exhausted, beaten down, and bearing all of their scant possessions. The shantytown they previously occupied has been razed, without warning, by Afrikaners, leaving them with nowhere to stay; the strong suggestion is that this a commonplace occurrence, one that the couple has faced many times before. Indeed, their life together has been a wandering one; in the play's early passages, Lena struggles to remember, in the right order, the many townships that they have, however briefly, called home.

In a felicitous bit of staging, Boesman, entering from the house, tears down the plastic tarp that functions as a kind of show curtain, fashioning it into a makeshift tent, and he and Lena proceed to begin their lives again, as they have done so many times before. (They are stopping here in part because the nearby river will provide them with prawns in the morning.) Lest you think this is a sentimental portrait of the dispossessed, Fugard has a shock in store: Boesman's treatment of Lena is harsh, even violent; she often furiously pushes back, but, in the long run, she takes whatever cruelty he dishes out. The details of their lives are pitilessly rendered: Lena counting the bruises she has incurred from Boesman, the many stillborn children delivered by Lena (one managed to live six months), and her story of being forcibly separated, by him, from the dog that was the one source of affection in her life.

Adding to the tension between them is the appearance of another wanderer, the elderly, possibly ailing, Outa. Providing additional evidence that the oppressed often absorb the lessons of their tormentors and apply them to others -- a key Fugard theme -- Boesman considers Outa to be little more than an animal. (In the ghastly calculus of apartheid, Boesman and Lena are considered colored, their mixed-race heritage giving them a notional status over Outa, who is pure African.) Boesman wants Outa gone, as quickly as possible, but Lena invites him to stay and share their fire and some food; Boesman angrily cuts their portion of bread in two, keeping one half for himself and giving them the other half to share.

When Lena disobeys Boesman's commands, he exiles her from their improvised sleeping quarters; she is forced to huddle -- in the cold, in front of a few flames -- with a total stranger who speaks only the Xhosa language, rendering communication between them virtually impossible.

As a portrait of life on the outer margins of existence, without a drop of mercy and absent any hope other than managing to live another day, Boesman and Lena can be difficult to watch. As is often the case with Fugard, the exposition is sufficiently leisurely to make one impatient, even if it ultimately pays off. But time and again, the play -- especially in Yaƫl Farber's majestic production -- delivers blazing insights into these characters: If Lena still fights back against the terrible conditions they must endure, Boesman has let the poison of apartheid seep into his soul. Without a focus for his rage, he turns on her and, ultimately, himself.

Farber -- who, on the basis of this production and the recent Mies Julie at Classic Stage Company, is clearly a force to contend with -- has gotten superb work from her two leads, both of whom are unrecognizable from their previous appearances. Indeed, having seen Zainab Jah as the put-upon, yet calculating, bushwoman of Venus and the manipulative glamour-puss of School Girls; or the African Mean Girls Play, I am now beginning to think of her as some kind of shape-shifter. Walking in a halting manner that bespeaks exhaustion, her posture stooped at a forty-five-degree angle, she speaks in a kind of rattle that often rises to astounding power. She finds a surprising individuality in a character who could become a poster woman for the downtrodden, as well as an indomitable life force that drives her to make the best of her hardscrabble circumstances. She bears her losses as a testament to her survival -- yet, the sight of her cozying up to Outa, seeking warmth, is heartbreaking.

Sahr Ngaujah, who was introduced to us as the rebellious, sexually magnetic title character in Fela! -- and who has done stellar work in Lynn Nottage's Mlima's Tale and two other Fugard works, "Master Harold"...and the Boys and The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek -- has stripped away every bit of his considerable charm to create a figure who acts as a kind of human conductor of fury, attacking Lena because he knows nothing of love or tenderness, having never experienced it himself. Ngaujah also makes clear that under this carapace of anger are deep reserves of fear; when something terrible happens to Outa, Boesman's terror of being caught and unjustly blamed is palpable. Thomas Silcott makes Outa into a figure of innate dignity and mystery, but Boesman and Lena is, functionally, a two-hander, and Farber has cast the roles brilliantly.

Hilferty -- herself an authoritative director of Fugard' works -- also designed the ragged costumes, which are unimpeachable in their authenticity. Matt Hubbs' sound design is also solid.

Boesman and Lena was written in 1969 and one hopes that, for its many troubles, conditions in South Africa are no longer this horrible. Then again, one need only take a few steps outside of the Signature to see people living on New York's streets in conditions that uncannily mirror those of the play. (In Greenwich Village, where I live, more than one street tent has been pitched in an attempt to get through the winter alive.) If the play is a devastating comment on apartheid, its allied perception, about the way extreme poverty corrodes the soul, couldn't be more of the moment. In writing about the specific details of his country and time, he has created something that is, however dismayingly, universal. -- David Barbour

(12 March 2019)

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