KPBS AIRDATE: JULY 29, 1998
Theatrically, they couldn’t be more different. One’s a multi-million-dollar megamusical; the other’s a tiny, intimate drama. But both were written in faraway countries, set against a harrowing political backdrop. And both feature an unhappy couple: one pair can’t stay apart, the other can’t get together. It’s an unlikely ménage: “Miss Saigon” and “Boesman and Lena.”
One of Athol Fugard’s 1960s ‘family plays,’ “Boesman and Lena” dramatizes the persecution of South African blacks. At the La Jolla Playhouse, you can see Fugard’s latest piece, “The Captain’s Tiger,” where, in the wake of apartheid, he is able to turn his gaze on himself, his past and his family. But during the height of oppression in his country, he spotlighted the victims, the black majority who had to battle for survival. He make big statements with little stories, focusing on individuals with their individual pain and loneliness.
Boesman and Lena are homeless, uprooted yet again, when their hovel was bulldozed by “the white man.” With all their belongings on their backs, they’re walking, wandering, and finally bedding down in the desolate mud-flats. Boesman is fed up, cynical, abusive. Lena retains her optimism and hope, and even her compassion, when a stranger staggers into their camp. With him as silent witness, the couple is forced to face the suppressed anguish of their pasts, and to confront the toll this suffering has taken on their relationship. They can’t bear to be together, but they can’t tear themselves apart.
The small-budget, outdoor Black Ensemble Theatre production was mounted in a hurry, when plans for “Shakespeare in the Park-ing lot” fell through. Patrick Stewart has, once again, directed with a sure hand, using powerful material to elucidate the black experience. The typically excellent Walter Murray is too young, too neat and too fair-skinned to play a dying old Bantu. Rhys Green has all the requisite explosive anger of Boesman. But this piece belongs to Janet Mescus, who is transcendent as Lena, a woman lost and terrified, damaged but indomitable. Her joyfully defiant dance is nothing less than a triumph of the spirit — and a spectacular performance.
MUSIC: “The Heat is on in Saigon”
Spectacle is the operative word in the blockbuster poperetta, “Miss Saigon.” It’s taken almost ten years to get here, but if you like mega-glitz, it was worth the wait. With all the hype, the legendary $12 million production costs, and the celebrated helicopter, you expect quite a bit, and you get it: 43 onstage performers, an orchestra in the pit, and an actual plotline, which is more than you can say about its high-priced competitor, “The Phantom of the Opera.” Loosely basing the piece on Puccini’s ‘Madame Butterfly,’ the French “Les Miz” team of Boublil and Schönberg set their show in 1975, during the fall of Saigon. It’s a sad but sentimental love story, forged in the clash between two cultures. An American Marine falls for a beautiful Vietnamese girl, but then he’s airlifted out and she’s left behind, with her romantic memories and a baby. Years later, the impassioned couple finally reunites, with tragic effect.
The music is nothing to write home about, and all those macho male roles written for high tenor voices didn’t work for me. But Kristine Remigio and Steve Pasquale make a sweet couple, and Joseph Anthony Foronda is effective as the sleazy, greedy pimp who gets some of the best songs.
(MUSIC, under and out: “American Dream”)
The costumes and dancing are terrific, especially during the political rally, with its martial arts precision, and the big “American Dream” number, replete with a floating 1959 Cadillac. The helicopter is a pretty cool effect, too, much better than the Phantom’s silly old chandelier. This may not be high art, but it is a techno-theatrical extravaganza.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.