A rich homage to life in the theater as well as a moving meditation on growing old, "Exits and Entrances" shows that Athol Fugard is clearly back, after the post-apartheid missteps of "Valley Song" and "Captain's Tiger," writing the passionate, intimate and very human drama that gave his plays as well as his politics power.

A rich homage to life in the theater as well as a moving meditation on growing old, “Exits and Entrances” shows that Athol Fugard is clearly back, after the post-apartheid missteps of “Valley Song” and “Captain’s Tiger,” writing the passionate, intimate and very human drama that gave his plays as well as his politics power. Having lost his great subject, Fugard solves the problem by turning to the past, creating layers of meaning out of backward glances in a work both politically and dramatically shrewd.

The play begins with a young, not-yet-successful playwright reminiscing about an aging actor, having just read the latter’s tiny obit in the newspaper. “Playwright,” as the nameless character is called, is clearly Fugard, while the actor is Andre Huguenet — the “Olivier of South Africa.” The play is based on their brief friendship when Fugard served as Huguenet’s dresser.

Kent Paul’s direction fails to balance the cast: John FitzGibbon as Andre is superb; Westley Whitehead’s performance as the playwright is too slow, too sentimental, trying too hard to get the accent right. And the director yields to the temptation to fill the silences with intrusive music that compromises the hush needed in the opening and closing scenes.

Exits and entrances pile up as FitzGibbon takes on the juicy task of evoking role after role. Pavlova, as the Dying Swan, discovers her wings will no longer lift her; as Hassan, a character from an old cornball play, Andre, with his make-up towel wrapped like a turban, cries out, “Could you love me, do you love me, Yasmin?” echoing what every actor asks every audience on every stage.

The challenge of playing Andre is to convey a histrionic personality, somebody who, even in realistic conversation, sounds self-consciously theatrical. FitzGibbon is thoroughly convincing, and then creates a series of over-the-top performances, complete with stentorian tones and classical gestures, but nevertheless good enough to persuade us we are watching someone who at least was a grand actor.

“To be, or not to be” — as Andre first tells, and then shows us — “is not a literary conceit, it is a real question.” FitzGibbon offers an extraordinary reading of the famous “Hamlet” soliloquy, making every familiar line sound uncannily relevant to the play we have been watching. The aging actor playing this aging actor who is playing an aging actor stands bravely before us in his underwear.

Designer Michael Schweikardt mirrors the upstage wall, literalizing the theatrical metaphor nicely. It also serves as a larger metaphor for anyone who, growing old, feels left behind, outmoded, cast aside. And standing as both contrast and double to the self-glorifying, self-denigrating actor is the playwright’s father, who is “dying of unimportance,” a man we will hear more about when the playwright eventually writes “Master Harold … and the Boys.”

Like Andre’s degrading job in a movie theater, Playwright’s degrading job, working in Johannesburg as a government clerk, has salutary effects. Radicalized by the Sharpeville Massacre, Playwright now has a future — which will be to become Athol Fugard.

Contemporary Stage Company is the creation of twentysomething Keith Powell, who subsidizes the endeavor — now in its third summer season — out of proceeds from his acting. Powell, who has managed to lure Lynn Redgrave, Jasmine Guy, Keith David and Sean Patrick Thomas to Wilmington, also persuaded Fugard to give CSC rights to “Exits and Entrances” after promising to devote the season entirely to his work; CSC’s production of “The Island” opened last month to raves.

Exits and Entrances

Contemporary Stage Company, Wilmington, Del.; 300 seats; $35 top

Production

A Contemporary Stage Company presentation of a play in one act by Athol Fugard. Directed by Kent Paul.

Creative

Sets, Michael Schweikardt; costumes, David Rigler; lighting, Matthew McCarthy, sound, Nick Rye, original music, Roger Rees. Opened July 8, 2006. Reviewed July 9. Running time: 1 HOUR, 25 MIN.

Cast

Andre - John FitzGibbon Playwright - Westley Whitehead

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