Thursday, March 20, 2003

'Master Harold' gutsy, gripping telling of apartheid

Theater review

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

For everyone who keeps tabs on Playhouse in the Park's alteractive series, or knows where to park for SS NOVA, or can name three shows that have been done at The Artery, do yourself a favor and catch Master Harold...and the Boys, which continues at 7 p.m. today and Friday upstairs at Carol's On Main.

Production values are essentially nil at Queen City Off-Broadway, but the tiny theater consistently delivers startlingly good performances in post-1950 classics that producer/director Lyle Benjamin makes resonate today. Big time.

Queen City's slogan is "in your face theater," which may simply mean that the audience is on top of the action. Upstairs at Carol's, 6 feet is the average distance between actor and you.

Master Harold, Athol Fugard's powerhouse rumination on apartheid, is one of those plays everyone should see. Reggie Willis' first-rate performance helps make Queen City's production wrenching, emotionally gripping drama.

The action is set in the St. George's Park Tea Room, where waiters Sam (Willis) and Willie (Benjamin) have no patrons during a downpour, giving them a chance to practice for an upcoming ballroom dance competition.

The cabaret setting upstairs at Carol's plays beautifully into the restaurant setting. We feel like unseen patrons.

Fugard is a master of the unsaid and what he lets us figure out in Master Harold is that prejudice creates boundaries as uncrossable as electrified barbed wire.

Master Harold (Derek Hake does a credible job shaving off some years) is the son of the tea room owner who comes by after school. He's a desperately unhappy teenager whose rare happy times have been through the compassionate efforts of Sam.

But Sam is also the easiest target when family crisis drives Harold - emotionally more boy than man - to choose this afternoon to strike out and finds white entitlement a ready weapon.

If you like theater with bells and whistles, you'll be aggravated by the primitive light and sound.

But if you love to re-discover great work performed with intelligence and conviction, give Queen City a try.

Master Harold...and the Boys, 7 p.m. today and Friday, upstairs at Carol's on Main, 825 Main St., 681-2043.


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