Dangerous House, by Jen Silverman. Directed by Saheem Ali. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Alfie Fuller as Noxolo, Michael Braun as Gregory; photo: Sarah Sutton
"One minute is all it takes to change your life."
Samira Wiley as Pretty Mbane; photo: Sarah Sutton
In two consecutive seasons at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, playwright Jen Silverman has joined the ranks of favorite playwrights. Last summer she delighted me with her social comedy, "The Roommate" in which two women basically exhange personalities. This season she has thrilled me with the South African perspective play about lesbianism and radical thought entitled "Dangerous House." A young lesbian soccer star has found asylum in England from the oppression of South African government policy condeming same-sex relationships. When the girlfriend she deserted goes missing the soccer player returns home to Cape Town to find her and finds herself instead. The 85 minute one-act play is rich and rewarding in so many ways; the characters are fascinating; the actors are extraordinary as directed by a marvelous director on a functional and inventive set.
Noxolo has been sent abroad by her over-protective brother Siceto and she has befriended another emigré Marcel who owns a bar in London. On her sports/student visa she works for him, when she chooses to work and her story has endeared her to him. Back in Cape Town Siceto is collaborating with an American journalist, Gregory, on a series of articles that start off being about the World Cup of soccer but become a social critique of political oppression of rights in South Africa instead. Meanwhile Pretty Mbane finds herself in a situation from which there is no escape. Noxolo's sudden return to her homeland triggers a series of disturbing events and revelations.
Phillip James Brannon as Marcel; photo: Carolyn Btown
Homosexuality is the course chosen by author Jen Silverman to expose the hypocrisy of a nation's public policies and the way those policies can inspire outrageous actions.Noxolo's determination to stand up for and with her lover is disturbing to her brother but the American finds such an action to be natural and honest. Marcel experiences everything in levels of fear, his own gayness drowning his natural sympathetic nature. Silverman is a master at compelling us to listen to the voices of all of these people: to listen, to hear, to make up our own minds. As a playwright she has all of the tools with which to make her point and so she does.
Marcel, played sensitively and poignantly by Philip James Brannon, is the first voice of reason we hear in these matters. Marcel is also gay and so his character exposes facts with a high level of intensity. He is always clear and honest almost to the point of nausea. By the time he appears in Skype, we have already known what he knows about life, but his point of view, lyrically expressed, compels tears to fall from our eyes. Brannon's work in this play could not be better.
Atandwa Kani as Sicelo; photo: Carolyn Brown
Pretty Mbane is played with an exquisite sense of poetry by Samira Wiley. She speaks no poetry, reads and performs no poetry, but every line she utters brings with it the tranquility of the lyric poem, the gusto of an epic poem and the sharpness of the narrative. Wiley's use of rhythms in this role alters her from "person of interest" to very interesting person." She gives to Pretty a classic, Greek mythological aspect as she plays the most modern woman of the year. She doesn't trade in sentimentality. Instead she flushes the world with sudden, massive shocks of reality. This part, particularly in the final scenes of the play, is where the payoff of all that lyrical expressionism lies. "They came for me and he looked away," she says and in her own way she is telling us about not just her own death, but of the death of idealism.
This becomes so very real when we understand that the "he" she refers to is Noxolo's beloved brother. In his mind his decisions are simply save your own rather than save any others. Atandwa Kani has the unenviable role of the brother in this play. He is the presenter of hard facts and the suppressor of hard-earned personal guilt. He takes pride in guiding the Amerifcan journalist, an excellent and amiable Michael Braun, toward some fact and away from others. He has high expectations about his future through his "guiding" work in this instance. He is overcome by the forces around him and is compelled to confront his sister's hard won independence from things South African, an effort in which he has played a major role. It is a part that takes many unusual turns.
Alfie Fuller, Michael Braun; photo: Sarah Sutton
Not the least of which is his personal devotion to Gregory, the American author. He would like to be the centerpiece of the work, but his slim-pickings revelations cannot guarantee him such a reward. When the author becomes more interested in Noxolo's story, Siceto finds new avenues to use to take back what he believes is his and his part in Pretty's story becomes clear. Kani is wonderful with his charming smile and his deepening scowls, his mellifluous voice wooing Gregory, wooing us. With his sister he is one sort of man and with Gregory he is another. Kani pulls off the dichotemy brilliantly. We may never like him, but we sympathize with him just the same.
Michael Braun's Gregory is one of those hapless Americans who enter sure of themselves in a foreign place and exits knowing less than when he began. He is lulled into offering marriage and sanctuary to Noxolo but her strength allows him to actually leave Cape Town with his humanity intact and his person unmolested. Braun plays the selfless American to perfection. Luckily Silverman has written him to be just so.
Dane Laffrey's highly functional set is a perfect setting for this jewel of a play. Lap Chi Chu amost seems to capture sunlight in her lighting design, although that light exists offstage, outside the world we see, which exists principally indoors and at night. The costumes by Dede Ayite help to define each character well.
Saheem Ali has directed the play and overseen the production so that every aspect of Silverman's script is presented with a clean, clear vision. This is a story that never feels clean, never pretends to clarity, but Ali overcomes this with direct confrontations of character and character and character and audience when necessary. The tiny movements in the plotting by Sicelo that affect his sister are given gravity and strength through Ali's visual manipulation of people and things. It is wonderful work on the director's part.
I think this is one of the finest new works of the season. Set in the year 2010 it cries out for action but never tels us what action is needed, or when or how. It is just a call that the Williamstown Theatre Festival has answered with a perfect ensemble in too short a run on its second stage. The intimacy of the theater helps hold the plays strengths together. This production, with these people, should be seen everywhere for as long as possible.
Dangerous House plays on the Nikos Stage at the '62 Center for Theater and Dance at Williams College, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA through August 19. For information and tickets go to wtfestival.org or call the bgox office at 413-458-3253.