Seen and Heard March 2, 2012

Seen Off Broadway: The inaugural production of The Pershing Square Signature Center, a revival of Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot directed by the 79-year-old playwright, is in compelling contrast to the complex itself. While hangar-sized, the space, designed by Frank Gehry, is airy and comfortable, and allows in considerable light from 42nd Street. The theatre (one of three) is a black box, with the lighting units exposed, and the two actors marooned on an island of a stage. You feel as if you’ve rejoined civilization at the end.

Which is as it should be. Blood Knot, from 1961, was Fugard’s first international success, and while apartheid is no longer the order of the day in his native South Africa the issues of race and tolerance are of course fully resonant. Two brothers, the literate, light-skinned Morris (Scott Shepherd) and the dark-skinned Zach (Colman Domingo), an illiterate day laborer, share a house in a non-white section of Port Elizabeth. Morris, a worldlier soul who keeps the house in a relative order, frets about his brother’s isolation, and arranges to find him a female pen pal—who turns out to be white. Seemingly unperturbed by this development, Zach buys Morris a suit that will help him pass for white, but as the play substitutes abstraction for naturalism in the second act and Morris revels in his pretending to be Caucasian it’s painfully clear that clothes will not make the men.

Fugard directs exactingly, while allowing the two actors (Shepherd an Off Broadway veteran, and Domingo a Tony nominee for The Scottsboro Boys musical) free rein to create their characters, with moments and exchanges that border on improvisation. They convince completely as brothers, physical and allegorical, as the barren homestead manifests itself as South Africa, where nothing is ever as black and white as it appears on the surface.

Drawing the parallels is a cohesive design that doesn’t overstate the case. The insinuating bright blue suit that Zach purchases for Morris, provided by Susan Hilferty, is practically a character in and of itself, one that divides the tenuous harmony between the two men. Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting is appropriately raw and exposed, like nerve endings, and Brett Jarvis’ sound design is supportive of the environment. Christopher H. Barreca’s set, an elevated platform decorated (if that is the word for it) with a few subsistence-level odds and ends, is eventually cleared by Zach and Morris, who throw all of the trappings of their life off the stage—but a fresh start it can never be. An excellent start for the Signature Theatre’s new home, Blood Knot plays through March 11, at the unbeatable price of $25 per ticket.

Sold out throughout its closing performance this Sunday (at significantly higher prices) is Richard III, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. But this final production from the Bridge Project between BAM, the Old Vic, and Neal Street Productions is worth brief consideration. Its chief draw, Kevin Spacey as Shakespeare’s great manipulator, gives an astonishingly physical performance, one that involves the required hump and holding his damaged leg at an odd angle throughout, and being hoisted up into the rafters feet first at the end of a nearly four-hour show that he’s in almost continuously. Sam Mendes directed Spacey to an Oscar-winning performance in American Beauty (1999), and this equals that achievement.

Part of the entertainment is watching the actors get on and off stage, via 17 doors that set designer Tom Piper has installed onstage. The set comes apart, exposing a void (given depth by Paul Pyant’s textured, shadowy lighting) as Richard’s villainy continues unabated. This is one of those Shakespeares that dip in and out of history, with Catherine Zuber’s regal, fascistic costumes sharing the stage with TV news reports of the latest battlefield developments and other projections created by Jon Driscoll. Whipping up a dramatic soundscape, with Mark Bennett’s martial music performed live, is Gareth Fry. Unlike the scheming Richard III, this finale to the Bridge Project is in the giving vein throughout.

Richard III

Set Construction: Scott Fleary Scenery
Audio Equipment: Autograph Sound
Projection Equipment: Stage Sound Services

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