Athol Fugard asks a lot of the actors who perform his work. Not only must they delve into the emotional and psychological complexities of living under South Africa's apartheid system, but they must -- at least in his one-act "Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act" -- strip themselves naked. Literally.
Until 1985, it was illegal for South Africans of different races to have sexual relations (not unlike anti-miscegenation laws that were enacted in the American South). Fugard's play, currently part of a double bill produced by the Potomac Theatre Project, takes off from this fact to examine in his elliptical fashion the human translation of an inhumane law.
Choosing to have the two main characters -- a black teacher and a white librarian -- perform in the nude was clearly the playwright's most dramatic decision, and one with endless metaphoric possibilities. The vulnerability of the naked, the honesty of those stripped of their protective appurtenances, was no doubt appealing as a theatrical concept.
But the reality is that the play becomes a work about nakedness rather than about two people caught in the cross hairs of the Immorality Act. Even an hour is not long enough to forget the fact that these two actors (Carolyn Swift and Bill Grimmette) are utterly nude (even if the light is moonlight dim) and to focus instead on what they are saying.
Part of the reason this doesn't happen is that Fugard doles out information about the two stingily, and later rather than early on, so we have little sense of why they have come together under conditions that would discourage most lovers. As it is, they -- or at least these two performers -- seem oddly passionless, and their love affair is doomed by their differences even without the laws that force them to keep it hidden. Fugard, I think, would have us see these two as innocents, whose simple love for each other is stupidly thwarted by the state, leering with hidden cameras to catch them in the act. But it is hard to care about two people you don't know much about.
In the early 1970s, when this play was written, having a naked interracial couple onstage in South Africa could have, conceivably, made the participants liable for arrest. It was first performed, as most of Fugard's works have been, in Cape Town's Space theater, but Fugard himself, who is white, played the part of the man he describes as "colored" (which would have avoided a technical violation of the law).
The text is spare and determinedly non-melodramatic. Grimmette is somewhat more successful than Swift at creating a person from the fragments Fugard has provided, but neither accomplishes the possibly impossible task of making us forget their nakedness (as attractive as it may be).
The second half of the double bill is "The Good and Faithful Servant," a satire by Joe Orton about corporate paternalism and working-class complicity with it. George (Harry A. Winter), a gatekeeper, is retiring from the factory after 50 years. He is given a cheap toaster, an electric clock and a round of applause, and is promptly forgotten by the company he has devoted his life to.
Orton throws all sorts of wackiness into the pot: The woman scrubbing the floor turns out to be the woman he had a fling with long ago and lost track of; her grandson turns out to be his grandson; the poppet weeping to the company's personnel director turns out to be pregnant by George's grandson. The electric clock runs backward and the toaster toasts only one side, and retirement for George, who has -- it is pointed out -- no hobbies, proves indeed to be fatal. Stripped of his uniform, he has been robbed of his life, as barren as it was. He dies not knowing that his once rebellious grandson has signed on with the "firm" and is happily dancing at the company's annual party.
As amusing and pointed as "The Good and Faithful Servant" is, it has the feeling of an outline rather than a complete play. Director Douglas Sprigg uses modular furniture to accomplish the many locale shifts, but a certain zaniness is missing; one longs for someone to toss the boxes or play a scene upside down or something. The actors seem a tad inexperienced, as evidenced by strained English accents and the inability of one of them to keep a straight face. Winter, however, solidly embodies the pathetic, one-armed drudge, George.
In its aim to provoke with avowedly political plays, the Potomac Theatre Project has succeeded with vigor. These two plays run in repertory with two others, the feminist "Masterpieces," about pornography seen as violence against women, and "Iranian Nights," inspired by the death threat against author Salman Rushdie. The company, now in its fourth summertime season, is this year offering its works free, an experiment in audience-building that seems to be succeeding. Performances are in a modest, four-sided space at Georgetown University's Hall of Nations through Aug. 5.