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Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot considers the ties that bind us—to family, to community, to nation and notions of self—and when the pain of constriction becomes too great, responds with a great, horrified cry. The same subject elicits nothing but raucous laughter from Bat Boy, The Musical—assuming that such a rollicking spoof of a show considers anything besides the pop-culture conventions it mocks.
Which is almost certainly assuming too much, even for the sake of critical convenience: Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming’s off-Broadway hit—inspired by the exploits of the Weekly World News’ famous pointy-eared adolescent—isn’t nearly as interested in man’s inhumanity to you-know-who as it is in sending up the kind of musical that does care about such things. You know the type: Ragtime, Les Miz, The Lion King—anything with a heartfelt anthem or a misunderstood monster or a rousing, chorus-to-the-footlights moment, anything that asks if we can feel the love tonight or wants to change the way we think now and forever. Hell, Bat Boy would pitch darts at Blood Knot if Fugard had written any songs. It’s scabrous that way, and it’s sensational fun.
At least it is when it remembers that it’s a parody. At the Studio Theatre’s Secondstage, the cast is young(ish) and boisterous enough to know the difference between the pathos of a lonely outcast’s life and the bathos of a stage musical documenting same. Certainly the designers have their tongues firmly in cheek: It’s hard to say whether Eleanor Gomberg’s props (think inflatable furniture and patently fake bunnies for Bat Boy to snack on) pack more humor and sass than Michele Reisch’s costumes (from glam-rock goth for the title character to stereotypical hickwear for the West Virginian cattle ranchers he terrorizes), but both are terrific.
Likewise, Michael J. Bobbitt’s choreography, which pokes affectionately acerbic fun at the career highlights of greats from Jerome Robbins to Graciela Daniele to Susan Stroman, is all of a lively piece with the show’s snarky lyrics and deft musical jokes. Laurence O’Keefe’s tunes take aim at everything from overheated torch songs to lame rap rhymes—even managing a sidelong swipe at Floyd Collins, a cult-hit New Musical that finds echoing lyricism in the slow death of a trapped spelunker—while the story spits repeatedly in the eye of conventions both dramatic and social, from Greek tragedy and quick-change farce to small-town politics and the vagaries of youth culture.
So when Bat Boy sags—it’s only a few moments, but they’re invariably the moments in which someone forgets that irony didn’t really die that grim September day—it’s tempting to lay the blame on director Mike Chamberlin, who might have reminded the players to keep their inner smirks intact.
Those who do, consistently, are the evening’s standouts. Lauri Kraft, as a Pleasantville-perfect matron with a soft heart and a dark secret, finds precisely the right blend of plastic and earnest. Doug Sanford makes his leather-trousered sheriff as sordidly sexy as only a rural elected official can be. And Patrick O’Neill is limber and agile and comically adept as the poor, misunderstood bloodsucker whose tragic story teaches so many valuable life lessons: that we’re all more connected than is usually apparent, for instance; that blood will out. And, as the rousing, chorus-to-the-footlights finale is only too happy to tell us, that you can’t raise cows on the side of a mountain.
Athol Fugard wrote Blood Knot before irony was even born properly, back in the mid- ’60s, when earnestness and anger were the order of the theatrical day, and yet somehow this wrenching drama neither dates badly nor distances us with outrage.
That’s partly because Fugard, South Africa’s towering lyric bard, has a superb instinct with narrative, a knack for telling stories so clean and compelling that you’ll almost miss the metaphor that always echoes between their lines. And if Blood Knot takes quite seriously the notions that Bat Boy jokes with—that blood (and skin color) will out, that we’re all more connected than we sometimes care to think—it’s a measure of Fugard’s skill that it never once seems naive or obvious.
On the surface, it’s a domestic drama, a small story about how the pressures of a profoundly race-conscious society threaten the tentative household peace achieved by two township brothers—one (Jefferson A. Russell) dark-skinned, the other (Michael Glenn) light enough to pass for white. It is also in some respects a documentary, chronicling with care and without a hint of condescension the simple, centuries-old devices the very poor employ to bear the unbearable passing of the endless sameness of days.
Underneath, there’s a privileged playwright’s quiet, aching acknowledgment of the great wrong done to his disenfranchised compatriots, of how much blue and rue are tangled up in two populations’ feeling for their shared homeland, of how straitjacketed both feel within their own skins, and of how critical is the need for both to find a way of acknowledging and confronting and changing all this before it ends in some brutal, fratricidal bloodletting. When you consider that it was first performed nearly 30 years before Nelson Mandela walked to freedom, the farsightedness and charity of its vision becomes hugely, chokingly apparent.
Russell and Glenn wear their characters’ troublesome skins easily; they’re fractious enough to be believably brotherly, politely tentative enough to be convincingly on the mend from the long separation the script tells us they’ve endured. And Jennifer L. Nelson, who directs the African Continuum Theatre Company’s staging at the Kennedy Center, negotiates the play’s perilous terrain so subtly that even audiences unfamiliar with the history and issues at work may find themselves surprised, hours later, by how many resonances keep emerging. Childhood memories, workaday routines, even such questions as whether to talk or to do, to spend or to save, to think and plan or simply to carry on getting by, all become lenses through which we’re asked, gently and relentlessly, to examine our assumptions—and those of the eternal Other.
It is a fine, rich play, and ACTCo gives it a fine, rich reading; I suspect that it, like the magnificent country that bore it, will haunt me to the end of my days. CP