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This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

May 13, 1998. All rights reserved.

Review: Fugard’s Captain’s Tiger

Look above and observe the shimmering reflection of

the ocean’s movements. Look ahead and notice the thick mooring rope

bedded down. The tramp steamer S/S Graigaur is at sea. And an inexperienced,

starry-eyed, 20-year-old young salt named Athol Fugard strides atop

Number Four Hatch. You can see how proud he is to have the honor of

ringing the eight bells that announce the end of the watch on his

first day aboard.

A new adventure — "the great adventure," as he calls it

— awaits this captain’s cabin boy, better known in sea-lingo as

"The Captain’s Tiger." The year is 1952 and Fugard, still

far from being the mature polished, politicized, and acclaimed South

African playwright that is his destiny, dreams of a literary future.

As the play’s narrator, Fugard assures us that he’s ready to "write

a novel a la Tolstoy." That remains to be seen, or, in this case,

heard. But he is ready to give us tidbits and fragments from his adventurous

youth, what he has on his mind, and what are the passions that propel

him. In this gentle, modestly theatrical new play by the generous

and immodest Fugard, in which he also plays the title character, an

impassioned Fugard is eager to experience life, see the world, and

begin work on the novel that he hopes will immortalize his idolized

mother Betty (Jennifer Steyn).

Always the endearing, if hardly self-effacing, raconteur, Fugard shares

with us his ripe-with-events letters home to his mother. He is also

spending his free time pursuing what he calls "creative honesty,"

in the novel he begins. That is until he unwittingly conjures up the

lovely, charming, and romantically imagined Betty, who turns the tables

to become his unauthorized collaborator and critical eye. Appearing

on deck dressed in the kind of summery frock that would do nicely

at a Capetown high tea, Betty is concerned that her son is "taking

lots of liberties" with the facts of her life.

The facts of Betty’s life do not bother or matter very much to the

curious Donkeyman (Owen Sejake), the burly towering Kenyan mechanic

who works below deck and who appears most definitely in the flesh

to befriend Athol. Whenever Donkeyman is not busy fixing what needs

fixing in the engine room, he is seen bonding with the writer, not

only as his self-ascribed "older brother," but as an advice-giving

confidante and rapt listener to each new chapter of Fugard’s manuscript.

While Fugard only interacts with the muse-like appearances of Betty

and the imposing, illiterate Donkeyman, we, the audience, become his

fellow voyagers and sea-worthy mates.

The autobiographical play is most disarming in the feisty and amusing

confrontations between Fugard and his idealized mother, Betty. The

young man is inclined to embroider ("My job is to make reality

dramatic") the grandly conceived novel about his mother, "Bettie

le Roux: Story of a South African Woman." And these florid embellishments

and blatant distortions of truth distress her. We can’t help but laugh

when she takes exception to the liberty he takes with her meeting

with the man she will marry. "It’s easy for you to talk. All you

have to do is write it down. I have to do it," she protests.

There is a nice relationship developed between the unsophisticated

Fugard, who admits to being a 20-year-old virgin, and the savvy earthy

Donkeyman, who becomes Fugard’s unlikely mentor and ports-of-call

guide. If Fugard’s nostalgic tales of losing his virginity in Japan,

and the memory of his lecture on existentialism to Congo natives are

humorously told, they become more like diverting digressions than

driving forces. It seems a shame that Fugard’s memories are filtered

almost exclusively through narrative form rather than through a theatrical

vision. Does this suggest that the play may still be in transition?

Whatever the case, Fugard is a master at "serious prose" (his

character’s words) and creating a private and poignant subtext to

his personal story.

Whether he is the reflective 66-year-old story-teller, or the innocent

20-year-old seafarer who thinks he can write about his mother’s intimate

yearnings, Fugard is having a blast interacting with himself. Although

she only gets to make a little splash in the ocean, Steyn makes some

impressive emotional waves as Betty. Sejake is excellent and even

touching as Donkeyman, who, although ultimately betrayed, finds the

words and the ways to fan the creative fire in his friend.

Acting as co-director with Fugard is designer Susan Hilferty, whose

artistry, if notably muted in this instance, is still readily apparent.

Let’s hope that before "The Captain’s Tiger" finishes its

American premiere at McCarter Theater (following its world premiere

in Pretoria, South Africa) the creative team will find a way to make

what seems so tenaciously personal more theatrically persuasive.

— Simon Saltzman

The Captain’s Tiger, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place,

609-683-8000. Through May 24.

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