Defeatist Victory

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

It's such a good story it's surprising someone hasn't made a short play out of it. A famous, foreign dramatist living in exile in San Diego hears good things about a small production of one of his old plays. He and a friend drive up to Hollywood and duck into the tiny theater. The playwright, who never watches his own plays -- unless he's the director -- loves the staging and agrees to one day give the theater a brand new play. Five years later, the script arrives -- and it's a smash, running for months and eventually moving to Off-Broadway and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

That is the true story of how the 78-seat Fountain Theatre became Athol Fugard's theatrical home-away-from-home. It's one of the great moments in LA theater history and it's raised expectations for the next Fugard/Fountain collaboration, which opened last month. This new play, which received its world premiere last year in Cape Town, is titled Victory.

victory1.jpg Said to be based on an event in Fugard's own life, Victory depicts a domestic robbery in rural South Africa. Lionel, a white, retired teacher comes home to find two black burglars in his dining room—one of whom is the daughter of Lionel's former housekeeper.

Fugard's work has always featured strong metaphors. Usually one doesn't mind, even when they're a bit on the obvious side (like, say, flying a kite representing freedom) because the language and situations in Fugard's plays unfold so gracefully.

victory5.jpg Here in Victory, however, Fugard's metaphors hit the audience like anvils. First there is the thief's name, Victoria. We are told she was named this because she was born on the day Nelson Mandela walked out of prison. Okay. Next we learn that Vicky is not just robbing the house where her mother worked, Lionel also helped Vicky learn to read and go to school.

victory2.jpgIt's very clear that Fugard sees Lionel's home as a metaphor for contemporary South Africa, but what he can't see is how to dramatize this politically charged conflict or make his incident or characters come alive on stage. Within the opening minutes of Victory, you know exactly who represents what and how it's all going to end. In Exits and Entrances, the show the Fountain premiered in 2004, there wasn't much incident or action, but the scenario and the dialog seemed to posses a rough magic that always managed to avoid easy theatrical clichés. In Victory, on the other hand, Fugard's words always seem to devolve into lines from old heist films, like "whoever holds the gun holds the power."

Actor Morlan Higgins brings great sincerity to the role of Lionel and director Stephen Sachs stages the 65 minute one-act with skill; but despite their past alchemy at the Fountain, neither man—nor newcomers Tinashe Kajese and Lovensky Jean Baptiste—can save Fugard's dry polemic.

victory4.jpg What's most depressing about Victory is that even under the worst times of apartheid, Fugard's plays brimmed with hope. Yes, they were often brutally honest dramas that showed the injustice of segregation and the damage it did to both white and black souls, but the writing of these plays was itself an act of belief—both in the future of South Africa and in the power of theater to enact change.

victory6.jpg Lionel's character mutters the phrase "I just don't care anymore." One cannot blame Fugard for being depressed about the current state of violence and poverty in his homeland. It's not that he sees South Africa as riddled with problems that ultimately defeats Victory, but rather that Fugard no longer seems to believe that theater can do anything to solve them.

The U.S. Premiere of Athol Fugard's Victory continues at the Fountain Theatre through March 23.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Photos: Ed Krieger