Dispersoned Places


The people of Tristan da Cunha, an isolated lump of volcanic rock in the South Atlantic, are provincials and proud of it. Probably not so proud, though, that they would admire Zinnie Harris's Further Than the Furthest Thing, which is set on an island much like Tristan. Harris was inspired by the tales of her grandfather, an Anglican priest who in the late '40s was sent by the C. of E. to minister to the Tristanians. Naturally, she wrote a play in which the islanders are a semi-savage bunch of self-baptized primitive Christians, with nary a prelate in sight. This casual disregard for truth is the essence of what's wrong with her play, which substitutes fake exoticism and theatrical hokum for reality every chance it gets.

In 1961, the volcano on Tristan erupted; the few hundred islanders were evacuated to Southampton. They didn't enjoy England; when the volcano had cooled down, most of them went home. This took a while (the lava flow had buried the island's one harbor) and a rumor sprang up that in the interim the British had used the island for weapons tests. Harris, of course, takes the rumor as fact, blames the delayed return on government ineptitude, and turns the islanders' English exile into an updated Babylonian captivity. (In fact, the stay seems to have helped them learn how to modernize the island without harming its natural treasures.) Harris has to put this fascinating tidbit of history in fancy dress: The islanders must have a Dark Secret in their collective past, to which a new sordid one must be added for the first-act climax—an erupting volcano isn't enough. And the islanders can't merely be ordinary souls who've preserved archaic speech patterns and customs in their isolation—they must be simple, pidgin speaking, and slightly daft.

Woodard, Light, and Glover in Sorrows and Rejoicings: Karoo Syrup
photo: Bruce Davidson
Woodard, Light, and Glover in Sorrows and Rejoicings: Karoo Syrup

Details

Sorrows and Rejoicings
By Athol Fugard
Second Stage Theatre
307 West 43rd Street
212-246-4422

Further Than the Furthest Thing
By Zinnie Harris
Manhattan Theater Club
131 West 55th Street
212-581-1212

On the plus side, Harris's dialogue is far fresher than her dramaturgy. If she can't realize her islanders as individuals, she at least has the ability to make them talk perkily as a group. Harris's text would make pleasurable hearing if director Neil Pepe had pruned away the vaudeville-simpleton repetitions that weigh it down. Pepe's production does what it can to alleviate the general dramatic soppiness: Working on an ingenious, starkly spacious set by Loy Arcenas, he gets excellent performances from Jennifer Dundas, Robert Hogan, Jenny Sterlin, and Dan Futterman (especially the last two) as Harris's four islanders, and a feisty one from Peter Gerety as a baseless fifth character—a compassionate capitalist who is also a government agent. Only in a quaint, isolated place hopelessly out of touch with the real world, like the contemporary London theater, could such an all-purpose stick figure pass for a human portrait.

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