The set of "Playland" offers immediate immersion, from the active ticket booth upon entering the space to the dirt and mulch that grits under your shoes as you walk to your seat. The set itself is sandwiched between two seating areas, each offering a unique perspective of the play. Jutting out from one side of the seating arrangement are the struts of a wooden roller coaster. You can see a sloping hill as it arcs behind a black curtain, hiding the rest of the coaster's bulk. Suspended over the audience on the opposite side are the lower reaches of a Ferris Wheel, strung with colorful lights. Completing the transformation of the acting space into a ramshackle amusement park are an aged carousel and a lonely bumper car.
"Playland" takes place in 1989, a time when apartheid was the reigning political policy in South Africa. Written by Athol Fugard, who received the Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement, the play does much more than touch upon the atrocities of war and pervasive racism. Gideon Le Roux (Charlie Barron) is a former soldier in the South African Border War, and has come to Playland Park on New Years Eve to put the past behind him and move forward into the new decade. As the park is opening, he meets Martinus Zoeloe (Erik Kilpatrick), the caretaker and night watchman of Playland. There begins a connection that neither of them immediately realize; a connection that grows into confrontations and revelations.
Fugard's dance of words is deftly directed by Deanna Jent. The actors have been given plenty of room to develop and nurture their characters' relationship. This is clear when noting the simmering tension that lies beneath their words. Barron and Kilpatrick (with a vocal performance by Richard Lewis as "Barking Barney" Barkhuizen) embody the language of the play, and I felt a sense of current urgency, though the time and events of the play happened 22 years ago. The trauma of war and racism still exist, and are hard to erase, a theme that is pervasively clear. The acting itself is clear, as both men are stretched through the emotional spectrum: from joviality to wrathful anger, from grief to absolute terror. When one man growls fury at the other, the feeling that everything may tip out of control is right there, pulling you in, inciting a response. I felt myself cringing at some moments, fearful, then laughing at others, then nearly moved to tears (as if I were riding the wooden coaster itself).
Though there were only two actors on the stage throughout the play, it was obvious that they were supported not only by Jent, but by a strong cadre of designers and crew members. As I mentioned earlier, Courtney Sanazaro's set design is crackerjack. Special mention must also be made of the lighting design by Bess Moynihan. There were many times when I smiled in appreciation of the little things, like the light of the sunset fading into dark, the sun rising on the opposite side of the stage with the light looking like an actual sunrise. I must say that I gaped, yes gaped, when the amusement park lit up in all of its whirling, blinking beauty. Nary a trick was missed, not a bulb out of place.
These elements: impeccable acting from Barron and Kilpatrick, precise direction from Jent, immersion in a set with proper lighting,superb dialect coaching by Richard Lewis, seamless sound design, make this show a must-see. It is a fine example of what happens when a cast and a crew trust each other and come together to create a drama that resonates.
"Playland" is showing at the Fontbonne University Fine Arts Theatre from February 2 – 12, 2012.
Shows are at 8p.m. on Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Please note that some adult language is used. For more information about this and future Mustard Seed Theatre productions, please visit mustardseedtheatre.com or call 314-719-8060.