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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek
In The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, in its west coast premiere at the Fountain Theatre, the playwright examines both. Simon Levy's quietly lovely production builds on the company's solid tradition with this very important playwright.
Fugard can scarcely write about his homeland's future without addressing its turbulent past.The Painted Rocks. . . spans 22 years, beginning in 1981 with a curious outsider artist near the end of his life and concluding with the young man who was the artist's companion and potential torch bearer in free South Africa two decades later. We are watching ordinary people whose lives have been directly affected by their nation's turmoil in unpredictable ways.
Young or old, male or female, white or black, a character of Fugard's creation will have passion, depth and contradictions. The playwright does not write straw men or villains. He is eternally writing from a place of love and hope, and his characters are in the surest of hands at the Fountain Theatre which has produced seven of his plays since 2000, several of them American premieres.
The inspiration for The Painted Rocks is a real life Mozambique artist named Nukain Mabuza whom Fugard never met. Mabuza painted a fantastical garden of stones atop a hillside in South Africa's Mpumalanga Province. The bright yellow rocks with their snake-like tracks of red black and green, make up Mabuza's "Garden of Flowers" drawing onlookers from all over the territory. As the play opens, Mabuza (played by Thomas Silcott) and his young companion, Bokkie (Philip Soloman) arrive, paints in hand, to confront the hillside's final unpainted rock, a veritable boulder which the boy refers to as Big One.
Bokkie cleans off the bird droppings and expects Mabuza to tackle the beast already ("He's just a big rock."), but the old man recoils. Painting that last rock would essentially signal an ending, potentially depriving Mabuza a reason to continue to return to this spot. This artist has no real home, no money, and no means. With barely a coin in his pocket, Mabuza possesses instead a rich history and a deep personal connection to this terrain. Ultimately, Mabuza not only puts brush to stone, he paints his life story into the rock, only to have the land's owner Elmarie Kleynhans (Suanne Spoke) arrive and inform him that that particular design won't do and orders him to wash the scene away.
Although he is only in the play's first act, Silcott's Mabuza is every bit the The Painted Rocks' beating heart. Decades of hardship are resting on the man's shoulders as he sits looking at the rocks or out over the hillside panorama. As he teaches a song to Solomon's eager Bokkie, those years seem to fall away, and we think perhaps this artist may not be facing his last canvas.
The real Mabuza was a largely unknown figure, and Silcott — who has done equally lovely work in two previous Fugard plays — beautifully fills in the details. In tune with the production's understated tones, Solomon strikes a nice balance between youthful brashness and the quietness of a young man who is processing the ways of a world in transition.
The child called Bokkie (an Afrikaans term meaning "small buck") will grow up and become Jonathan Sejake (Gilbert Glenn Brown) who, in the second act, returns to that same Mpumalanga hillside 22 years later in an effort to complete Mbuza's canvas. Much has certainly changed in the decades since Bokkie left, but even in a free South Africa, tensions remain. When Mrs. Kleynhans encounters Jonathan, not only does she not recognize the little boy she used to send on errands, she sees him as a trespasser and pulls a gun on him. "You haven't changed much," Mrs. Kleynhans says when she realizes who he is.
The encounter sets up a dialogue between the two characters replete with both anger and wisdom; the kind of an intimate scene which is a Fugard hallmark. So many of the author's works are 90-minute snapshots. The Painted Rocks is broken across two acts with an intermission used in part to give the stage crew time to age the landscape and rocks on Jeffrey McLaughlin's nicely evocative set.
We miss Mabuza in the second act, but even without him, Fugard's leap forward into a new decade is seamless. In a sense, Jonathan and Mrs. Kleynhans are continuing and building upon a conversation that Mabuza and Bokkie/Jonathan were having back when South Africa was nowhere close to freedom. He may not realize it, but Jonathan has now become the teacher who sees the immense value of telling a story correctly. In Brown's capable hands, that lesson is not laid on with a heavy hand. Spoke is equally excellent as a woman who is trying to evolve and reach an understanding.
Critics have noted the similarities and links between Nukain Mabuza and Miss Helen, the reclusive sculptor of the playwright's 1984 work The Road to Mecca and, indeed, the two works bookend each other. But where Mecca is set largely inside the home of a woman in self-imposed exile, The Painted Rocks. . . takes place outdoors with miles of land in full view. The Fountain has produced both plays and will most likely stage whatever Fugard comes up with next. As The Painted Rocks. . . ably demonstrates, like Jonathan and like Athol Fugard himself, this company also knows the worth of a story
For a review of the New York production go here