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First Nighter: Athol Fugard's Shadow..., Richard Maxwell's Isolde

04/12/2014 11:06 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2014

Although Athol Fugard turns 82 in June and his protagonist in The Shadow of the Hummingbird -- having its world premiere at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre -- is already 84, the two-year difference in ages doesn't keep the deeply charming and charmingly deep 60-minute exercise from instantly registering as autobiographical.

That it begins with the grandfatherly Oupa (Fugard) reading passages that the program identifies as Paula Fourie's extracts from the author's own notebooks does nothing to suggest otherwise.

Entering an upstage door in Eugene Lee's highly credible notion of an octogenarian's cluttered study, Oupa's first words as he goes about locating those books are "Where are my eyes?" He's merely looking for his glasses, but with that query Fugard deftly lets us know the play will be about seeing.

And it is, because not too long after Oupa finds the spectacles and reads several passages in them, young grandson Boba (either Aidan McMillan or Dermot McMillan) arrives for what is apparently a standard visit during which an impromptu and loving tutorial takes place.

This lesson initially seems as if it will center on birds. Not too surprising, since a poster of bird species is tacked on the door through which Oupa came. The specific bird is the one mentioned in the title. More specifically, it's a hummingbird that comes by Oupa's house often, casting its shadow on that upstage wall and, as Oupa sees it, challenges him to capture that shadow. (The clever lighting designer is Michael Chybowski.)

Fugard being Fugard, the impossible act invoked turns into something bigger. It becomes Oupa's way of introducing Boba to the intricacies of Plato's teachings and, in particular, the famous myth of the cave. For those who've forgotten their Philosophy 101, that's the tale in which people trapped in a cave looking at a wall on which shadows are thrown come to believe in the shadows' reality, only to be baffled at first when released into the world outside the cave and confronted with the actual entities casting the shadows.

Fugard gets his biggest laugh when, finishing the story, Boba looks unimpressed and says, "Mr. Plato's story isn't very good." At that, Oupa sets about explaining why it is and what it means by asking Boba questions and getting the enlightening answers from Boba that he's looking for. What he's doing is quickly recognized by anyone who's ever taken a philosophy course as the Socratic method of teaching. Oupa is playing Socrates -- as Socrates brought Plato's insights to his students.

And Fugard does it with such warmth and familial regard that the notion of didactics only crosses an observer's mind for its absence. The 82-year-old playwright isn't finished there, however. He takes the idea of reality, illusion and the ability to see the difference even farther by making Oupa's passion to catch the shadow into something beyond reality and illusion. He builds it into an appreciation of that uniquely human attribute, the imagination.

How he does it isn't going to be revealed here since it involves how he ends his play. It's sufficient to say that while The Shadow of the Hummingbird is brief enough to be considered an anecdote, its evocations -- definitely as directed by Gordon Edelstein and played by the bearded Fugard and adept young friend -- are a delightful example of big gifts coming in small packages.
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Playwright-director Richard Maxwell has built a reputation on approaching theater in non-tradition ways that more often than not look decidedly non-theatrical. When you've done things differently for 15 years, as he now has, a totally untried way to be different with a new project is to revert to the traditional.

That's what he seems to be doing with Isolde, his latest New York City Players production at Abrons Art Center. He appears to be presenting nothing other than a play in a recognizable mode. Isolde (Tory Vazquez) is an actress first seen having trouble running lines with contractor husband Patrick (Jim Fletcher). Worried she's lost the thesping knack, she retreats into concentrating on building a house across the lake from her current abode and engages architect Massimo (Gary Wilmes) for the assignment.

Impressed with his design (it hangs invisibly on the invisible fourth wall of Sascha van Riel's very basic set), she falls for Massimo's high-flown architect's rhetoric -- although Patrick remains pragmatically underwhelmed. Massimo affects her so thoroughly that she falls for him (and he for her). In no time, she's ready to enjoy sado-masochistic sex with him.

As the months go by and no new-home ground-breaking occurs due to Massimo's insisting he needs to know more about the couple, Patrick tries calling Massimo's increasingly obvious bluff and enlists family friend Uncle Jerry (Brian Mendes) in his campaign.

Things come to a head when suddenly Maxwell has the four players show up in ancient garb to play out a short, tragic scene drawn from the Tristan-Isolde saga. Just as suddenly, they revert to present day and the present Isolde's continuing trouble learning lines.

Because Maxwell has deliberately begged for comparison of the old and new Isolde plights and because this is Maxwell to begin with, a viewer may suspect there's more to the enterprise than meets the eye. Maybe the house-building action is really the play the actress is having difficulty getting down. Maybe the boat mentioned in the play's lines relates in some way to the lake across which Isolde and Patrick are planning their dream house. Maybe an actress playing an actress is Maxwell fooling around with the problem of deciding what's real in life and what isn't.

More likely, none of the above is in Maxwell's thoughts. What certainly and baldly is is a play about an unhappy woman who falls for a man who's hardly a Tristan figure and who turns out to be no more than the windbag her loving husband declares he is. So if with Isolde, what you see is what you get, then what you get is a mildly intriguing drama not especially enhanced either by the clichés embedded in it or the deliberately flat playing adorning it.