Roller coaster


Craig Pelusi and James Wheatley ratchet up the tension in <i>Playland</i>.

Craig Pelusi and James Wheatley ratchet up the tension in Playland.

Rated 4.0

There’s not a lot of fun in Playland. The gaudy circus colors and sadly blinking lights of the funhouse can’t disguise the weariness of this traveling amusement park. Even the forced gaiety of the carnival music just adds a sadness to this 1989 New Year’s Eve in a small town in South Africa’s Karoo desert. The sun’s setting both on another year, and more symbolically, on a way of life as apartheid ends. And the unlikely duo of a black night watchman and a white ex-soldier will find themselves ushering in the New Year with an uneasy peace.

Playland is considered South African playwright Athol Fugard’s first post-apartheid play, and explores the unsettled future relationships and unresolved painful pasts of two societies coming to grips with massive societal changes.

Fugard is not afraid of confronting the ugly truths in Africa’s history, as seen in his earlier plays such as Master Harold and the Boys, Blood Knot and My Children! My Africa!, and Playland is no exception. Here he places an old black carnival watchman with a drunken white businessman and slowly lets them unfold their nightmares and bitterness to each other, while confronting ugly truths and confessions.

In Celebration Arts’ production of Playland, the staging sets the scene right away, with a faded funhouse and broken-down ride barely hiding the tiredness of both the old amusement park and its watchman/handyman Martinus Zoeloe (James Wheatley).

When a brash partygoer, Captain Gideon LeRoux (Craig Pelusi), enters the carnival swigging a bottle and boasting of good times ahead, he confronts Martinus and tries to force frivolity on him. “My resolution tonight when midnight comes no bloody miseries next year,” he begins to slur to Martinus. “I don’t care how I do it, but 1990 is going to be different. Even if it kills me.” He tries to engage Martinus in conversation, with little success. What do you watch, he asks. “I watch everything all the time,” Martinus tightly answers. “I don’t sleep.”

At first the differences between the two men are apparent. LeRoux downs liquor while Martinus sips coffee. LeRoux is expansive and loquacious; Martinus is quiet and terse. LeRoux mocks God while Martinus talks of the Big Book and No. 6, the sixth and most serious of all commandments: Thou shall not kill. LeRoux does most of the talking, Martinus the listening.

LeRoux finally gives up and goes inside to celebrate while Martinus waits for the night to be over.

But after “Auld Lang Syne” is sung, LeRoux comes back and starts to goad Martinus into a confrontation. Thus starts the parrying between the two men. Stories are swapped and accusations fly, and it’s slowly revealed that both men have broken the big No. 6—though only one has regrets.

Playland is not one of Fugard’s best plays, and in the beginning of this production, its weaknesses are evident. There is a real disconnect between the characters and an awkwardness in the story, mainly because Fugard does not allow much interaction between the two men, with LeRoux dominating the talk and action while Martinus passively watches.

However, two things help make this a memorable production. First, the second half finally brings tension and suspense to the story for a dramatic payoff. And, more importantly, Celebration Arts gives us two remarkable performances by Wheatley and Pelusi. Wheatley brings dignity and a sizzling anger to Martinus, while Pelusi is riveting as the puffed-up, pugnacious LeRoux. The two actors eloquently elevate this play with their unforgettable portrayals of two oddly matched, kindred spirits and leave a lasting impression with the audience.