So, you think you know what boredom in the theater is? You once saw two Frank Wildhorn musicals in one day? Well, yes; you do get points for that. You’ve sat through the entire Texas Trilogy in rapid, which is to say slow, sequence? Not bad, but still smallish potatoes. You spent a day at the Chinese opera? I feel for you, but you still have a way to go.
Tell me, however, that you have sat through the intermissionless 100 minutes of Athol Fugard’s latest, The Captain’s Tiger, at the Manhattan Theatre Club, and I’ll give you every drop of my sympathy, commiseration, and condolence, plus, if it were mine to give, the Purple Heart. You have drained the bitter cup to the dregs.
The end of apartheid may have brought happiness to multitudes, but for one man it spelled pure disaster. Alas, poor Athol! It took away what was his one subject – a mighty one, to be sure, from which he wrested endless, often successful, variations. But apartheid apart, the man is reduced to purveying ditch water. Already his previous effort seen at MTC, Valley Song, was a desperate haul to bring back at least the phantom of apartheid, to give a paltry opuscule something to say. With The Captain’s Tiger, he has only his self-indulgence to rely on, and, infinite as that is, it isn’t enough.
One wonders why Fugard chose the theater as the medium for this memoir of his youth, which would have done better as a novella. That’s what it still is, narrated for at least four fifths of the text by himself. True, there is the occasional interruption from Betty, as he calls his mother, to write about whom in relative peace he hired out at age 20 as captain’s tiger (i.e., factotum) on a tramp steamer sailing from Africa to Japan. As the pages of the book grew, it became subject to the comments of its sole auditor aboard the S.S. Graigaur, Donkeyman (i.e., stoker, the play’s third character), whose English was rudimentary. Mother, as such, isn’t in the play; only old Fugard’s memory of how young Athol fantasized her – a ghost of a ghost, as it were.
Except for a few scattered crates and a blue-green backdrop, there is no set. Except for two dresses and a nightgown for Betty, there are no costumes. And except for 100 minutes of trivial and pointless palaver, there is no play. There are not even, as we seemed to be promised, tigers or donkeys. Donkeyman is a curious contraption: Sometimes he speaks no English save a pitiful pidgin interlarded with Swahili (rather more than we can handle); at others, his English is suddenly good. (Similarly, the author’s Swahili fluctuates up and down.) The dialogue goes, “Paka duna.” “Paka duna yourself.” The word for the sex act (hard to make out) is either jig-jig or jiggy-jiggy, and we get plenty of it – the word, that is.
To stir us out of our lethargy, there is the occasional putative shock effect, as in the proposal to go ashore in Colombo for “hot fish curry and a good fuck.” Fugard the director tries to compensate for Fugard the writer by goosing his cast into jigging (the usual sense) and bopping. All honor to Tony Todd as Donkeyman for relative underplaying. Felicity Jones has duly learned the right accent but, no doubt under heavy prodding, overacts relentlessly. Fugard the actor is determined to turn his country singlehandedly into a chief exporter of ham. He reads every line as if it had been given to him on Mt. Sinai by a burning bush, and capers about like an old satyr refusing to face that his nymph-chasing days are over.