Dancing in the dark: 'Master Harold . . . and the boys'; Boston Ballet
We are dancing again. The same South African greasy spoon, gone all grimy and ratty around the edges. The same pitter-patter accents of Willie and Sam. Sam is teaching Willie the quick step. And by the time the night is over, ''a whole lot of teaching'' will have gone on.
The dance, of course, is both event and metaphor in Athol Fugard's masterful play ''Master Harold . . . and the boys,'' which has returned to the Wilbur Theater. Willie and Sam, black servants to a white South African family, are preparing eagerly for the big dance contest of the year. Sam, who is wise and caring, guides Willie through his fears about the dance, while chiding him for beating up his dance partners and riding him with good-natured humor. Into this idyll enters Hallie - Master Harold to Willie - the young white boy whom Sam has practically raised.
Hallie's family life is laced with the poison of self-hatred, a poison that Sam has antidoted with love and understanding. The relationship between white boy and black man has been sweet and mutually beneficial, as Hallie has taught Sam scholastic subjects and Sam has taught him true manhood. But the relationship is beginning to turn - like a rotting piece of fruit - the victim of racist poison.
What you have in ''Master Harold'' is a spellbinding play, deceptively simple on the surface, full of anguished detail underneath. (There is also a moment of brief nudity, late in the play.) Fugard, the mature master of his craft, gives you just enough hope to bring you along. He brings you, through the metaphor of the dance, to understand that understanding is possible. Then he brings you to the edge of the chasm - and gently pushes you over. The play's penultimate scenes are so emotionally devastating that I heard the audience audibly gasp at one point.
''Master Harold'' finally leaves you with a glimmering hope, but it is a hope that you pay for, body and soul. I left the theater emotionally drained.
Zakes Mokae, who plays Sam, knows the play and the playwright well enough to feel his way intuitively through the emotional mine field. He is a relaxed, delicate, and powerful actor. What he does, he does without fanfare, so that you are not aware of what he has in store for you.
Evan Handler plays Hallie with the uncanny understanding of an adolescent coming of age ugly. The only problem in the production comes from Ray Aranha, whose applique facial expressions never really convinced me that he was there.
Right in the middle of the work, Fugard gives us another metaphor, this one of a kite once made by Sam out of brown paper and clothing scraps. It is so makeshift and homely that the little boy Hallie is ashamed to be seen with it. But it flies, lifting their hopes with it, and Hallie recalls that he felt it was a miracle.
Well, the miracle down at the Wilbur (through Nov. 20) is this wonder of a play, all taut, beautiful, draining, and unforgettable. Bach comes through
Some performances can be heard on old Victrolas - through the impedance of antiquated recording techniques, all scratchy and occasionally unintelligible - and still sound thrilling and unforgettable.
Well, Bach's ''The Passion According to St. John'' came through several performance problems in a half-filled Symphony Hall last Friday night. But only the power and glory of Bach's genius could have pulled it out.
Helmuth Rilling conducted the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and his own Gaechinger Kantorei of Stuttgart in an uneven performance of the work. Problems of marriage between singers and orchestra were legion, but the singing was on an exceptionally high level, and some of the instrumental solos were brought off with great depth and dignity.
The choral forces often were radiantly warm and powerful. The fact that we were listening to Bach, albeit much-neglected Bach, made the thing special. You just don't get to hear the ''St. John Passion,'' and it was a privilege to sit in a concert hall and have it all unfold around you.