Athol Fugard’s early apartheid drama inaugurates a handsome theater complex
BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
Before reviewing Signature Theatre’s worthy revival of “Blood Knot,” let’s talk about the new Pershing Square Signature Center, where the production opened last week.
Designed by Frank Gehry, Signature’s three-space complex is located only two blocks away from the Lincoln Tunnel exit/entrance, which certainly makes the venue very handy for New Jersey playgoers.
A large and airy second floor lobby contains a café, a bookstore and expansive views of the midtown skyline. These bright environs are Spartan but cheerful and welcoming with creamy walls and blond woodwork, accented by jumbo-sized portraits of playwrights like Edward Albee and Horton Foote whose works Signature has staged over these last 20 years. Three intimate theaters lead off the lobby.
The 199-seat Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, where “Blood Knot” is being performed, features a modest balcony, black cinderblock walls, very comfortable seating and a lofty feeling to the auditorium.
Produced off Broadway in 1964 and again on Broadway in 1985, “Blood Knot” is regarded as South African playwright Athol Fugard’s breakthrough drama. Like so many of Fugard’s plays, the first act involves some laborious wind-up before unleashing its power in the second part.
The two-character drama involves biracial half-brothers eking out a hardscrabble existence in a shack in a “coloured” shanty town in South Africa in the early 1960s. The ginger-haired Morris (Scott Shepherd) easily passes for white but his sibling Zachariah (Colman Domingo) looks very black.
The playful brothers, who share a happy fantasy life, appear quite comfortable with each other’s mild eccentricities. Then their pen-pal correspondence with a woman – who turns out to be white in a country where apartheid strictly segregates the races – upsets their equilibrium.
The increasingly surreal second act sees these brothers act out stereotypical white and black roles that leads them to violence signifying the country’s racial tensions.
As the naturalistic drama turns into a Beckett-like world, designer Christopher H. Barreca’s stylized set is literally thrown aside while the lighting by Stephen Strawbridge grows harsh. So, too, does the acting twist from natural, deeply-grounded characterizations into heightened expressions of rage and loathing.
Observantly dressed by Susan Hilferty in raggedy clothes, Shepherd and Domingo flawlessly navigate the drama’s mutating dynamics under Fugard’s well-calibrated direction.
Clocking in at two hours and 30 minutes, the play could be trimmed a bit but “Blood Knot” remains an imaginative testament to a horrendous time in South African history.
“Blood Knot” continues through March 11 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St., New York. Call (212) 244-7529 or visit www.signaturetheatre.org.