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When Athol Fugard is in town, he has the well-earned ability to suck the air out of any other plays competing with him on any given night. In his Exits and Entrances, which opened last week at Florida Stage, although the septuagenarian South African playwright/icon isn't here in body, he's here in spirit through this grand autobiographical play that harks back to his early days as a playwright rising.
The play is also a valentine to a legendary South African actor with whom Fugard mingled in the 1950s, who at that time was on his way out even as Fugard was on his way in. Get it? Exits and entrances. The play is a snapshot of the mid-20th Century crossroads of change in South Africa in theater and society that transformed Fugard into, well, Fugard (author of, among many others, Blood Knot, Boesman and Lena, Master Harold... and the Boys, Sizwe Bonzi Is Dead,and A Lesson from Aloes).
Florida Stage's production, the play's East Coast premiere, is also the road show of director Stephen Sachs' original cast that did the play so much good last year in its first production at Los Angeles' Fountain Theatre. While the Broward Center may have its $300 tickets for the road show of Broadway's Wicked, here's a promisingly underhyped value-meal collaboration between Florida Stage and the Fountain Theatre that hopefully signals more such connections between South Florida theater groups and their cousins elsewhere in the country. How great would it be to see South Florida give birth to similarly remarkable productions that would then move across the Great Plains?
Exits begins in 1961 with the Fugard-based playwright (William Dennis Hurley) working at his desk and reading about the death of actor Andre (Morlan Higgins) from circumstances undisclosed but intimating suicide. This launches the playwright into recalling their first meeting, when he was Andre's tea-fetching dresser for a Capetown production of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex five years earlier.
Andre is an over-the-top classical actor more comfortable inhabiting Hamlet and Lear than the body of a flabby, middle-aged, South African man. He's an Afrikaans Laurence Olivier who waxes lyrical, even in backstage, opening-night tirades against, um, theater critics. "I have bred antibodies to the bites of those little vipers," he spouts. Yikes. Andre the drama queen has spent his 30-year career on the stage he considers his home. He revels in the dripping of stage blood from his face as he works over Oedipus' soliloquies. He also represents the end of an era of extravagant acting.
Fugard has created a splendid dynamic between the playwright and Andre, between the unpretentious student and the ham professor. Higgins' rich portrayal of the arrogant thespian is countered by Hurley's ingenuous, happy-eyed playwright, whose lovable Stan Laurel mannerisms are later balanced by his coming of age as an explorer of a new kind of political drama to reflect real social issues in his country. In California last year, Higgins and Hurley tallied no fewer than nine well-deserved acting awards for their roles.
In the play, the pair's second meeting five years after Oedipus, just before Andre dies, shows how much has changed for both. The playwright comes to see Andre perform as a persecuted cardinal in a backwater production of Bridget Boland's 1954 play The Prisoner. Backstage after Andre's wrenchingly penitent performance as the broken cardinal, so different from his arrogant take on Oedipus, the playwright and the actor reunite to recognize how much they've been altered in those short five years. Andre has fallen into bankruptcy and despair. For the playwright, the events unfolding in South Africa, marked by the violence of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, have formed his vision of his own role in theater.
Five different plays reside in the unwrapping onion of Exits and Entrances.There's a comic romp of opposites with exquisite timing; a dialogue on the fundamental role of theater in society; an exploration of the kind of mentoring relationships we all recognize in our own memories of talented teachers; a meditation on what a life is worth, after all; fretful exploration of South Africa's evolution into a deep, dark place; and, finally, joyful insight into Fugard's own backstory. OK, so that's actually six different plays. You might experience an entire season of theater during the two hours you'll spend watching Exits.
Most important of these layered themes is a fight about the role of theater in society. For Andre, theater takes us out of the squalor, out of the railway camp of his repressed childhood. He doesn't connect the stage with his nation's social calamities. For the emerging playwright, theater's purpose is exactly that to bring into light his country's dark, squalid corners. "What does it have to do with the theater? Everything, at least in mine," argues the increasingly strong playwright. And that's where they part ways.
As Andre gives his last performance, the playwright is also saying goodbye to his youth. The initially sad ending as the playwright mourns Andre's death and reflects on the shadows of life, memory, and history also becomes forward-looking. He gets back to the desk where he started out the play and dutifully resumes his craft.
We fully know the world that came next, of apartheid and the consequent role that Fugard would play as a fighter in that world. While we romanticize Fugard's role in the apartheid era as a beacon of light, just like we extol poet Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia or other sentinels of the literary-political nexus, Exits and Entrances is also a reflection of a long-ago different culture in which a now playwright/icon was also just a kid forging his way confusedly to create relevance for his unfolding vision.