There’s some powerful storytelling in Playland
There’s some powerful storytelling in Playland. But it takes way too long to get started.
South African playwright Athol Fugard sets this script in a travelling amusement park on New Year’s Eve 1989—just weeks before the country began to dismantle apartheid. The fair’s black night watchman, Martinus (Tom Pickett), is approached by a white man, Gideon (Michael Kopsa), who claims he wants to be his friend. Their interaction serves as a microcosm of race relations in South Africa, but for the first half of the play, their conversations feel contrived and pointless because nothing is at stake.
Things get more interesting when the process of Truth and Reconciliation begins, as the men tease out each other’s stories of the one thing they have in common: they have both killed. Martinus murdered his fiancée’s white boss after the man sexually assaulted her, and he subsequently served a long prison term; Gideon spent 10 years fighting in South Africa’s border war, where he killed countless black guerrillas. Fugard’s writing in this part of the play contains searing imagery: at one point, Gideon compares counting bodies with the way his father used to count cabbages in his garden. But by the time someone finally wants something—“Forgive me or kill me. That’s the choice you have,” demands Gideon after unburdening himself of the truth—the play is nearly over.
Under Anthony F. Ingram’s direction, Kopsa and Pickett both manage to find individuality and emotional authenticity in characters who are conceived as emblems of their respective races. Unfortunately, their South African accents are thick enough to obscure whole chunks of dialogue. The hours that pass between the two men’s encounters are suggested by short scenes of Gideon alone onstage, making conversation with imaginary revellers, while Trent Payton’s slide projections of nighttime amusement-park rides fill the playing area. Kopsa does his best to be a one-man party, but too often he’s drowned out by the fairground announcer’s endless commentary, undermining the stylistic relief that these brief scenes should provide.
Drew Facey’s handsome set, with its crunchy gravel ground, broken-down roller coaster, and sagging string of lights, echoes the decay of a political system.
As a metaphor, Playland is admirably constructed. But as drama, it falls flat.