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Theatre in Review: Blood Knot (Signature Theatre)

Scott Shepherd and Colman Domingo. Photo: Joan Marcus

It's a funny thing about Athol Fugard. You'd think that his earlier plays, most of which deal head-on with the evils of South Africa's apartheid system, might seem a little dated, especially when measured against his later, more broadly themed works, such as The Road to Mecca, which focuses on the artist as a social outsider. After all, it's been more than 20 years since apartheid went the way of the dodo, and we've all moved on, haven't we?

The truth, however, is very different. The recent Roundabout Theatre revival of The Road to Mecca, in a perfectly good production, feels logy, old-fashioned, a touch arthritic. By contrast, Blood Knot, written in 1961 and deeply informed by Fugard's fury at his country's noxious racial laws, remains a work of remarkable power. How can this be?

One crucial factor may be Fugard himself. Gordon Edelstein's direction of The Road to Mecca is thoroughly professional, but, in the last analysis, may be a little too reverential for its own good. In approaching the 50-year-old Blood Knot, Fugard treats it as anything but a museum piece; in fact, he takes a couple of surprising gambles.

The first risk involves casting. Blood Knot is a two-hander, requiring actors who can nimbly navigate its sudden mood swings, subtle revelations, and exotic, slang-filled dialogue - and a familiarity with Fugard's style is a plus. The original Off Broadway production starred James Earl Jones, a veteran of many Fugard works, and J.D. Cannon. The 1985 Broadway revival starred Fugard himself and Zakes Mokae, arguably the preeminent interpreter of the playwright's characters. Interestingly, the current revival features Colman Domingo, better known as a musical theatre performer, and Scott Shepherd, who has spent most of his career in the meta-theatrical world of The Wooster Group, which, aesthetically, exists light years away from the psychological realism of Fugard's works.

One actor is skilled in song and dance, the other in hyperintellectual theatrical investigations, yet they blend together beautifully as Morris and Zachariah, half-brothers united by the same mother and divided by everything else. Zachariah is black, while Morris is so light-skinned he is fully capable of passing for white. Separated for many years, they now occupy a hovel on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth. (In Christopher Barreca's carefully stylized design, their house is an indelible portrait of poverty, consisting of a raked platform with fragments of walls and piles of junk here and there.) Morris cares for Zachariah, keeping house, preparing his daily footbath (Zachariah's job as a guard keeps him standing), cooking their dinner, and carefully saving up Morris' earnings for the farm they hope to buy. We are introduced to their minutely detailed routine -- most of it spent squabbling, laughing, dreaming -- which ends with a nightly reading from Scripture.

Some have noted the influence of Samuel Beckett on Fugard, at least at this point in his career, and there is something suggestive of Happy Days in the characters' daily rites -- enacted with tenderness and humor in a setting of terrible squalor -- and their rambling conversations, which are interrupted at regular intervals by the alarm clock that dictates their schedules. But Fugard's universe, if no less harsh than Beckett's, is not governed by some opaque ontology, but by wicked, man-made laws. The action of Blood Knot is set in motion when Zachariah, desperate for a woman, is encouraged by Morris to apply, through a newspaper, for a female pen pal. He does -- Morris does the writing, since Zachariah is illiterate -- and his subsequent correspondence with a young woman named Ethel proves a fertile source of fantasy for them both. (Zachariah isn't above pretending that he's a real sport, with a fancy wardrobe and a new car.) But the fun turns to horror when Ethel sends a photo of herself, and Morris realizes that she is white.

It's a telling detail that neither brother notices Ethel's race at first, and it's not long before we realize that, on a moment-by-moment basis, Morris and Zachariah don't really grasp the difference in their appearances. Everything changes after Ethel's photo arrives, however, and what started out as a lark becomes a seditious act: A black man courting a white woman, even if only by the post, is a man asking to be put in jail. (Most worryingly, we learn that Ethel's brother is a policeman.) Suddenly, the brothers, like Adam and Eve after a taste of the apple, suddenly realize that their contrasting skin colors give them very different places in the world.

It's in the following sequence that Fugard takes his second major risk, as the brothers engage in a bout of role-playing in which Morris, dressed in the new suit Zachariah purchased for his now-abandoned meeting with Ethel, enacts the role of a white man, venting his disgust at Zachariah and in turn unleashing in him a rage that turns violent. As if bursting through the boundaries of their everyday reality, they tear their home apart, stripping the stage bare as Stephen Strawbridge's lighting, which was previously quite muted, takes on a harsher, all-seeing glare. None of this destruction is referenced in the script; it's apparently a decision made by Fugard for this production, and it has the effect of making the game played by Morris and Zachariah into a signifier for an entire nation built on a festering injustice.

There are many ways to view Blood Knot -- as a naturalistic depiction of a family relationship, a parable of innocence lost, an absurdist account of men striving to endure under cruel and ridiculous laws, and an allegory pitting the puritanical Northern European mindset against the earthier, less constricted African view of life. All of this richness is accessible at the Signature, thanks to the finely detailed, extraordinarily scrupulous work of the two-man cast. Domingo's Zachariah is a study in stream of consciousness, his moods shifting dramatically from laughter to rage to introspection every few moments before drifting off into a reverie; he embodies each of these quicksilver emotions with a remarkably light touch that makes him a constant pleasure to watch. Against him, Shepherd underplays skillfully, revealing Morris' tender care for Zachariah as well his nagging sense of personal displacement and his almost unconscious tendency to treat his bother like an unruly child. Domingo is especially revelatory during a monologue in which he asserts himself away from his brother's ear, and both make something riveting out of the role-play sequence, in which they are astonished to discover feelings that have been carefully hidden away for too long. It's here that Blood Knot attains its true power, as a revelation of how an oppressive social system bleeds into the souls of its citizens.

The rest of Fugard's production is modestly, but fluently, achieved. The costume designer, Susan Hilferty, probably knows more about the playwright's work than anyone else -- she has also designed dozens of his plays and directed several of them as well -- and her costumes feel just about perfect, especially that electric blue suit that Zachariah buys in the mistaken notion that it will wow Ethel. Brett Jarviss' sound design serves to deliver Doug Wieselman's original music, a quiet series of guitar interludes.

Only a few weeks ago, I was wondering if time might not be passing Fugard by, but Blood Knot proves that, when approached with a fresh eye, his ability to capture the cancerous details of the apartheid system yields results that retain every bit of their power. The regime he wrote about is gone, but the hatred he describes is very much with us, if in different forms. See for yourself, and enjoy two of finest performances in New York right now.--David Barbour


(22 February 2012)

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