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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
609-683-8000. Through May 24.
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