Athol Fugard drama; melancholic `Swan Lake'; ART boomtown play

The Boston Ballet's `Swan Lake' is well danced, but the spirit droops. Several lives are changed in a South African teashop one rainy afternoon in Trinity Rep's `Master Harold . . . and the Boys.' Two likable losers find love, friendship, and Roy Orbison under a Wyoming sky.

``Master Harold . . . and the Boys'' is one of those plays everyone should see.

Like many other plays about South Africa, ``Master Harold'' (playing at the Trinity Square Repertory Company in Providence, R.I.) tells us -- in a way that only theater can -- that the clamps one group of people place on another's freedom and dignity also shackle themselves. This sounds as if it could be a grim and preachy evening; it's not. The play also shows us how far love has to go -- and can go -- to melt through the ice of bigotry. And playwright Athol Fugard fills the play with moments of great lyricism and tenderness.

The play tells of an afternoon in a Port Elizabeth tea shop that irreparably changes the sometimes cozy, sometimes distant, always charged relationship between a white teen-ager and the black servants who work in his mother's shop. It opens with two waiters, Willie and Sam, practicing ballroom steps. In comes their mistress' son, Master Harold, whom they call Hallie. The kid cares for them, but he also tosses off some pretty insensitive remarks. Sam, who has acted as a father to him, winces at the jibes but delicately dances around them. The three seem to be having a pretty good time until a phone call breaks the thread. It seems the boy's hated father is coming home from the hospital. In his frustration, Hallie does something awful to Sam. The way the servant handles it is stunning in its grace and simplicity.

Trinity Square gives the play a strong production. The linchpins are the two black actors, Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, who plays Willie, and Ed Hall as the forgiving Sam. Michael Cobb's Hallie is the weak link. We don't get from him the vulnerability that would help us understand the boy's arrogance. Without a sense from his end of the deep relationship between Sam and him, the conclusion loses urgency. In spite of that, what the play tells us about the dangers of domination, about manhood, dignity, and forgiveness, strikes home. Through May 19.

On opening night of ``Swan Lake'' the Boston Ballet was as lavishly dressed as usual, but running through the thick tapestry of court intrigue, peasant insouciance, and lakeside wingbeats was a dark streak of melancholy. It was the slow, solitary moments one remembered, not the Black Swan's pyrotechnics. The ballet is about a Prince who falls in love with a woman who has been turned into a swan. The swan scenes at the ballet's heart are sadder and more severe after restaging by company teacher Herida May. Instead of rushing lyrically, the flock bobs and marches. And the end is so edited that true love just doesn't have time to triumph over death.

But Frank Augustyn made us sad with what he added to the role of Prince Siegfried. After his mother cut short his 21st-birthday revelry, telling him to get married, he said goodbye to his old tutor -- and his youth -- with a chain of silky turns. He speeded up and slowed down, looking thoughtful somehow, and making us feel the weight of the occasion.

Augustyn and Marie-Christine Mouis as the Swan Queen unfurled rather than danced their falling-in-love pas de deux, taking their time and keeping our fascination. Augustyn seemed to hover over Mouis, so closely did he follow her exquisite timing and brilliant balances. Reaching to catch her swoons, he moved like her shadow.

But the Black Swan pas de deux, where the Swan Queen's double seduces the Prince, did not heat up. Mouis's technique was sharp as a razor but not cutting. All those virtuoso steps should be flung at the Prince like dares. Mouis seemed almost unaware of him. And though Augustyn's turns were dazzling, he looked stiff in his leaps.

This was a lovely but introverted ``Swan Lake'' -- reflecting, perhaps, the mood of a company going through some radical changes. Through April 21 at the Wang Center for the Performing Arts.

``Going Up to Gillette'' is part of ART's four-year old NewStages, a new play series held each spring at the Hasty Pudding Theatre when the company has to turn over the Loeb Drama Center to students. ``Gillette'' and ``Claptrap'' (reviewed last week) stand out in ART's season because they are contemporary and are comedies. It's been a heavy winter at ART, and these two plays feel very springlike. ``Gillette'' treads the same dusty trail as Sam Shepard. The play, by William Hauptman, the author of last year's celebrated ``Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,'' starts with mournful country music, and the set is a room with peeling green walls, a fold-up bed, and junk all about. The clincher -- a backdrop of a desert sky.

You're not let down. The male leads are two likable, eccentric losers who have come to Gillette, a modern-day Wyoming boomtown, to ``get coin.'' They find 12-hour shifts, drugs, and materialistic women. Fed up and fired, they set up housekeeping right out on the desert, meet up with some feisty women, and fall in love.

Hauptman writes about the same kinds of rattling-around outsiders trying unsuccessfully to grasp the golden ring as Shepard, but he's not so mythic -- less wild-eyed, more specific, and accessible.

But he doesn't have as strong an impact. He tries to -- one revolting scene rivals some of Shepard's. He doesn't so much delve into the issues, however, as trumpet them for effect. He is better with the funny stuff.

Directed with spunk by David Wheeler, the actors let it rip. John Bottoms is splendid as the wise old coot. So is Cherry Jones as the doormat who finds her own strength.

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