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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Athol Fugard’s Exceptional Exits and Entrances in Northeast Premiere

Exits and Entrances
Morlan Higgins and William Dennis Hurley
Working within the framework of simple, direct plots, the prolific South African playwright Athol Fugard brings an astonishing density and richness to his plays. Additionally, Fugard clearly possesses the admirable ability to reinvent himself and remain relevant in an ever changing world. In any number of ways, his new play, Exits and Entrances, is a stunning culmination of his oeuvre. However, it also reminds us that for as long as he retains his strength, Fugard can be depended upon to continue to evolve and illuminate the theatre with his particular genius.

The autobiographical play depicts the two encounters between The Playwright and South African Afrikaans actor Andre Huguenet. They occurred in 1956 and 1961. The Playwright is very explicitly the young Fugard, half Afrikaans and author of a play about "two coloured brothers, one dark, one light living in a pondok (shack)." (This is a description of Fugard’s first internationally famed play, Blood Knot.) Andre (as he is identified throughout), who in actuality had been known as the Laurence Olivier of the South African theatre, is an unhappy lost soul in the failing, declining days of his career. The Playwright, filled with zeal and ambition, is embarking upon a career in the theatre which we know is to be stellar. Thus the two protagonists, respectively, are making their Exits and Entrances into and from their productive lives in the theatre.

1956. Andre is producing and starring in Oedipus Rex in Cape Town, for which he has hired the 24-year-old Playwright to play the role of a shepherd and act as his dresser. Andre, while vain, bombastic and fragile, has a glory about him to which those of us with a love for the power of the theatre can relate. He describes himself as a Dopper Moffie (Afrikaans for village queer) who found in the theatre "a world where I would be safe." Citing South African poet Eugene Marais, who when asked "where is your home" responded by holding up a sheet of paper, Andre proclaims that "the theatre is my home ... my greatest sense of myself, my greatest acuity, is in pretending to be someone else." He favorably compares being loved in his "home" by Shakespeare’s Ophelia to the relationship between The Playwright and his wife.

Audiences are sparse, and having spent his last monies to produce Oedipus, Andre is at the point of bankruptcy. "What creativity is all about is the hard labor of dreams ... The awful truth is that the audience has to give you permission to dream."

1961. The Playwright meets Andre for the second and last time in Cape Town where Andre is playing a highly fictionalized version of courageous Joseph Cardinal Mindszenty, who had been prosecuted by the Hungarian Communist regime, The Prisoner. It is clear to The Playwright that Andre’s career, indeed his very life, has reached the endgame. It is now clear to both men that Andre’s florid acting style has gone out of fashion and will no longer be accepted by producers and audiences. Andre does not have the inner resources to change. At least as devastating is Andre’s loss of belief in his ability, or in the ability of any individual, to make any difference in the course of the world. When The Playwright vehemently objects to his words, Andre responds, "You didn’t take offense?. My words were directed at myself when I was your age." "What do you pray for Andre?" "Nothing much, just a little courage to wear my curse, the Dopper Moffie, as a badge of grace and not disgrace.

Despite the fact that while on the surface, Exits and Entrances, like this review, may seem to center mostly on Andre, it is at heart a journey into the mind and spirit of The Playwright. The Playwright has always been determined to "wake up the Afrikaneers and make him think." Told by Andre that he should write of his own people, he responds "as far as I’m concerned the people of the slums are my own people." Of course, we have long known that The Playwright would play a major role in raising consciousness to the plight of the indigenous populace under racist apartheid regimes.

However, almost half a century ago, The Playwright was treated to an object lesson on how not to respond to the inevitable changes that come to us all with the passage of time. Even then, based on the evidence of this play, Fugard knew that one day, he would devote more of his writings to his personal concerns. While still writing of the evolving social and political terrain of South Africa, the focus of his recent plays has become decidedly more personal, and, as a result, they have more universal application. Figuratively, Athol Fugard has found the fountain of youth, and he is generously sharing its location with us.

The world premiere of Exits and Entrances was presented at the tiny Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles. The New Jersey Rep area premiere boasts the cast and director of the Los Angeles premiere production. Director Stephen Sachs has directed with a sure hand, never allowing the conversation to become static, and smoothly blending two diverse performances into an organic whole.

Morlan Higgins is excellent in the showier role of Andre. As noted, Andre is an emotionally buffeted, bombastic and complex individual. Additionally, Andre has to perform excerpts from Sophocles and, to a lesser extent, Bridget Boland (The Prisoner) in a florid manner while still conveying a certain grandeur in the performance of the former, and hard won pathos in the latter. Higgins captures the bold strokes and complex nuances required to capture Andre. William Dennis Hurley as The Playwright meets the challenge of holding the stage equally with Higgins, despite having to rely mostly on subtler, more limited strokes.

The spare, attractive set of Jessica Parks nicely serves for the three required locations. The costume designs by Shon LeBlanc are first rate.

Athol Fugard has been quoted describing Exits and Entrances as a "small play." Perhaps he only intended that it be a brief memoir of Andre Huguenet. However, this 85 minute, one act, two character play has emerged as an all encompassing self-portrait summing up the magnificent playwriting career and evolution of one of the giants of the English language theatre. Gratitude is due to the New Jersey Rep for bringing it to us.

Exits and Entrances continues performances through June 25 (Thurs., Fri., Sat. 8 PM/ Sun. 2 PM) at the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. Box Office: 732-229-3166; online www.njrep.org

Exits and Entrances by Athol Fugard; directed by Stephen Sachs

Cast
The Playwright………William Dennis Hurley Andre…………………………..Morlan Higgins


Photo: SuzAnne Barabas


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- Bob Rendell



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