Victims | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader


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Victims, the story of three men in South Africa during changing times, opened the same week that Nadine Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first Afrikaaner ever to do so. That event brought not just apartheid but its literary and artistic depictions into the world spotlight.

That's both good and bad for Victims, written by another Afrikaaner, Antony Van Zyl. The play may well benefit from renewed interest in South Africa, displaced in the headlines these days by the turmoil in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. But though Victims is certainly powerful theater, unlike Gordimer's writings, which explore the nuances of apartheid's degradation, it's all broad strokes. There is never any doubt where Van Zyl and director Michael E. Myers stand, either on the big or the small issues. There is never any question about how the audience is supposed to feel. Indeed, there is much overt manipulation in Victims. The subtleties have been left to the actors, who were simply superb.

David Barr as Phillip Mbuso, the black victim in the play's trio of men, is magnificent. His characterization both engages and repulses, creates sympathy and horror. Though Phillip is the moral center of Victims, it's critical that he also be convincingly immoral--that is, his spirit must be so ravaged that he believes the lies he must tell to survive. Barr does not disappoint.

When the moment comes for Phillip to commit treason--and it doesn't happen during the prison interrogation, a punishing experience even for those merely watching from the safety of the audience--Barr creates a sense of Phillip's shame and pride that's palpable. Phillip's treason is not merely political but personal, and spiritual, too. There can be no making up for it, no apology, no going back, and no hiding from it. It's the kind of betrayal that talks back from every mirror. Phillip's devastation is total--despite the playwright's last-minute attempt at redemptive heroics--thanks to Barr's consummate skills.

Victims is a contemporary story, one that addresses the recent changes in South Africa's political torture chamber. Phillip is a kind of South African black everyman whose very ordinariness guarantees him a stint in prison: every black man goes to jail at some time or another in South Africa, he tells us. There Phillip is humiliated, broken, and "reprogrammed" by the state. The food is terrible; guards walk in on him even when he's trying to shit; the beatings are constant; the messages from his captors are deliberately mixed.

At one point a guard rams Phillip's head into a dirty toilet. Later Phillip tries to drown himself there--one of three useless suicide attempts. The violence in Victims is quite graphic and not at all romantic. It is also necessary to make the play's point.

Phillip survives. In fact it's the postprison story that really addresses the meaning of oppression in South Africa. After he's released Phillip conducts his life in a way that gives every indication of success, of progressive change: he goes back to school, gets a degree, lands a job with an American corporation, gets promoted, buys a house and a car. Phillip is free to celebrate the day Nelson Mandela is released. But the monster created during his imprisonment--the unhinged, frightened man--lurks beneath Phillip's proper behavior.

The men who mold the monster are Johan Verkuil, an Afrikaaner prison guard (Nick Kusenko), and Charlie Anderson, the English officer who sets policy at the prison (Harry Hutchinson). Of the two, Johan is the more difficult to play--Van Zyl doesn't really provide for the changes in this character. When we first encounter Johan he's a torture machine, bitter, relentless, and without a conscience. By the end of the play he's the embodiment of the new South Africa, "an Afrikaaner who sees the future and accepts it," as Phillip says of him. It's too great a change, even if it's fully expected. Kusenko is excellent, but that isn't enough.

In some ways Hutchinson has it easiest. He goes from nice guy to asshole, from charming liberal to fascist maniac. While his changes are not in themselves as dramatic as those Kusenko's Johan goes through, they are pronounced and powerful. Even at the peak of Charlie's perversity, Hutchinson manages a most attractive evil. His victimization by the system, because it's self-inflicted, is the most familiar, and because of his power it's the most dangerous. Hutchinson could have played to our sense of morality and made us simply hate Charlie. Instead we have no choice but to see his twisted pain and delusions. It's not so much that he's sympathetic as that we recognize his ugliness as potentially our own.

There is no intermission during Victims, which makes this hour-long performance a prison of sorts itself. Van Zyl could afford to drop the script's sermonizing. The message, especially as played out by these three marvelously talented actors, doesn't need to be hammered. We get it. And we're scared to death.


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