Sunday, January 25, 2009

Play: Out/Inside Looking In/Outside

The Road to Mecca by Athol Fugard, Directed by Leigh Silverman, 15 Jan to 14 Feb 2009, Seattle Repertory Theater

This is a tough review to write, because I don't want to scare you off, nor do I raise your expectations to the point that no amount of mere mortal theater will slake your thirst. But ...

The Road to Mecca is an excellent play, well-written and beautifully acted and staged, and well-worth hieing yourself hence to go see it (scared you off, yet?).

The play is based on the true story of Helen Martins, an outsider artist who transformed her home in South Africa into the "Owl House", which now, years after her death, is a pilgrimage site for those who embrace folk art (but during her life was considered that eyesore built by that crazy lady).

But saying the play is based on her story is sort of like saying "Mutiny on the Bounty" is based on a trip to Tahiti. Yeah, it catches the basic notes (and gives the play its "hook" for the liner notes and people asking "So, what is the play about?") but the play is about a lot more than that.

Here's the play version - Miss Helen (Dee Masske) is the elderly woman who, since the death of her husband, has been transforming her house into her own folk art regime, her lawn filled with concrete statues facing towards Mecca, and her interior festooned with candles and mirrors. She is being pressured by Father Marius (Terry Edward Moore), of the very Calvinist (Dutch Reformed) local congregation, to check into the church's home for the aged and leave behind her work. In response to a panicked letter from Helen, an old friend (who is a much-younger schoolteacher), Elsa (Marya Sea Kaminski) drives the ten hours to Helen's home is middle of nowhere, South Africa, to provide moral support.

That's the gist, but there's a lot more going on. Helen is both more vulnerable and more strong-willed than she first appears. Marius is not quite the villain he is made out to be, and Elsa carries a lot more baggage with her than her own overnight bag. Secrets revealed, deeper truths uncovered, and a resolution, of sorts, is reached that leaves a new equilibrium.

And the actors are marvelous. Marya Sea Kaminski was brilliant in My Name is Rachel Corrie and is completely fantastic here without evoking that earlier role, building Elsa from the ground up as a fully-rounded persona. Dee Maaske as Helen keeps up with her, by turns helpful and helpless, sharp-tongued and soft, comic and stern. She's just great. And Terry Edward Moore as Marius captures that stiff spine of Calvinistic caring that I both recognize and empathize with. All three are beautiful in their work. Master craftsmen working with the best materials.

And here's the bit where their ability is truly on display - the play itself has long, long speeches about responsibility and art and darkness and and mortality and love and trust and other deep matters. Not only do each of the actors hold the stage for their parts, but the other two actors are there supporting, wordlessly, what is going on. I know that sounds like a small bit, but their engagement is the cue for our engagement with what is going on (which is why I may have such problems with Edward Albee plays - they always seem like the characters are just waiting for whoever is talking to finish up so they get on with their say).

As a warning, I'll tell you that the performance takes few prisoners with its authentic accents. Kaminiski plays a sharp Brit talking a kilometer a minute, such that you're sometimes playing mental catchup. Maaske is blessedly softer, but her Afrikaner burr is there, blurring and shaping the words and hiding as much as they reveal. And Moore is Dutch enough to be on an Old Masters cigar box, and pulls it off as native.

And usually, when there are unfamiliar words to the audience (for example the word Dominee - the minister of the DR Church), there's usually a hint of stress to favor the audience. As in "here, this is a word you may not know about, though it is in you program book". Not so here - they go barreling through and expect you keep up. And what they're doing, what saying, is important and interesting enough that you DO keep up. You feel the auditory software in you brain get rewired as you come to understand each character in turn.

As for the set design, it was good, though I realized they could have managed with only a blank stage and sea of candles. You never see the sculptures outside (nor should you), and the interior feels almost a little subdued. The interior exists, save in one important culmination of the play, just to stay out of the way of the play itself. For all the hook of folk art and strangeness, it does its job by letting the actors and the words do theirs.

It is a very good play, and touched me deeply with what it is saying about art and darkness, subjects close to my heart. So go see it, and don't be scared off by the praise.

More later,