Stage Review : South Africa's Marius Weyers in 'Performance'

Times Theater Critic

Marius Weyers was the big guy in "The Gods Must Be Crazy" who kept bumping into things. His one-man show at the Tiffany Theatre proves that he's a graceful and forceful stage actor. But his showpiece, Kafka's "Report to an Academy," left this viewer uncomfortable.

Kafka's piece is a formal speech to an unspecified "academy" regarding the successful adaptation of an ape to human ways. The ape himself delivers the speech, and between the lines it's evident (to him, as well) that the experiment has been a pathetic failure. Our speaker has lost his integrity as an animal, without acquiring the authority of a man.

On the page, this parable can be read a number of ways. For instance, it could be about the process of turning a healthy infant into a timid bank teller--a man in a cage. Kafka knew the view.

But if the actor presenting Kafka's "Report" dresses himself up as an ape in a tuxedo, the metaphor is going to seem a lot more specific. Particularly if the actor is from South Africa. To quote Weyers in last week's Times:

"When I first did it, I thought, 'This has nothing to do with apartheid.' But a lot of black people came to me backstage and said, 'This is my story.'

"I thought, 'Of course it's bloody obvious. It's suppression. It's taking a person out of his environment, putting your own laws on him and telling him he's a free man.' "

One hopes that Weyers' white South African audience read the piece that way. Unfortunately, it's possible to see his monkey-in-a-monkey suit as a symbol for something quite different: the folly of trying to educate the black man beyond his station. He'll never measure up. He'll only be miserable. It would be better to leave him with his kind.

Weyers is no racist. He has worked with Athol Fugard and tried to bring blacks into the South African theater. But the image he presents here comes uncomfortably close, for this American, to the cartoons that were drawn of Negro legislators during the Reconstruction.

Others may find the image as harmless as those in "Planet of the Apes." But it kept me from appreciating the technical skill with which Weyers presented his semi-marsupial: the astonishing speed with which he leaps into his jungle-gym rostrum, for example. For a big man, he's incredibly light on his feet.

A suggestion: What if Weyers scrapped the monkey makeup and presented his speaker as a man who wouldn't attract any attention at all in a tuxedo; a man whose monkey-ness was a matter of his inward nature?

That would present the actor a more subtle challenge, and would give the audience a more ambiguous experience, closer to what the reader of the piece undergoes. Kafka on the nose isn't really Kafka.

Weyers' curtain-raiser is Len Jenkins' "Chug," originally written about a good ole Southern boy with a taste for beer and a refrigerator full of frog parts. It makes an easy, funny leap into the world of Jo'burg.

"Marius Weyers in Performance," which was directed by Terrence Shank, plays at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; at 7:30 p.m. Sundays, through Jan. 17, at 8532 Sunset Blvd. (213) 652-6165.

Oddly enough, another actor is performing Kafka's "Report to an Academy" in town--William Fisher at the L.A. Fringe Theatre.

Fisher's makeup owes more to "Planet of the Apes" than Weyers' does, and his demeanor is more subdued, which is the point. At the end, his ape is close to clinical depression.

We get the message, but the performance could be more eventful. And would be, probably, if Fisher would also jettison his mask. Theater isn't basically about dressing up. It's about pretending. Last performances at 8 p.m Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at 929 E. 2nd St. (213) 680-0392.

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