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BWW Reviews: Detailed Direction and Performances Buoy Unfocused Writing in THE GARAGE SALE

Kim Cloete as Avril and Stefan Erasmus
as Michael in THE GARAGE SALE
Photo credit: Bronwyn Lloyd

The tenth season of Artscape's Spring Drama Season kicked off this past weekend with the premiere of Rafiek Mammon's new play, THE GARAGE SALE. Marketed as a sardonic exploration of the darker, yet funnier, side of Cape Town suburbia, the play is explicitly edgy and is one of several to appear on South African stages in the past couple of months in which rape is central to the narrative. While the play by no means makes light of this incredibly relevant and important topic, THE GARAGE SALE has - as yet - no real claim to the title of theatre as social commentary, stymied by a clichéd and often patriarchal approach to the subject matter. Nonetheless, one aspect of rape on which the piece is devastatingly on the mark is its reflection of how, in most rape cases, the victim is at least an acquaintance of the attacker. That alone is enough for this play to deserve another draft once this run is over, during which Mammon will hopefully discover the narrative and thematic focus that THE GARAGE SALE currently lacks.

THE GARAGE SALE begins with an extended scene that stumbles through a clumsy setup of the brother and sister relationship that appears, at first, to be central to the play, as well as of an incident from the sister's past that serves as the catalyst for the play's action when it eventually gets going - her rape by a family member in the same garage that serves as the setting of the play.

The problems in this initial scene are threefold. The most prominent of these is that Mammon starts telling a story that appears to have dual protagonists: Avril, the eternal optimist, and Michael, the eternal cynic. The first scene creates expectations that whatever is about to happen as the play continues will be key in shifting something in both characters. But Michael eventually all but disappears from the play and turns out to be nothing but a foil, a device used to deliver exposition and to lend some context to the introduction of the third character, Flip. Not even Mrs Linde - the iconic archetype of this kind of confidante - was given such a short shrift by Henrik Ibsen in A DOLL'S HOUSE.

Carel Nel as Flip, Kim Cloete as Avril
and Stefan Erasmus as Michael in THE GARAGE SALE
Photo credit: Bronwyn Lloyd

Secondly, it is not only Michael that disappears from view in THE GARAGE SALE. Mammon weaves a number of thematic threads into the opening scene - differing perspectives on love, sex and marriage, and the tension between memory and nostalgia, for instance - and many of these also abandoned to focus on the narrative developments of the final scene. Finally, this scene needs a great deal of work yet for the characters to stop sounding like mouthpieces for punchlines, in-jokes and set pieces on domestic or social issues.

The opening scene is also overlong, given that it takes up almost half of the running time of the piece before Flip arrives and sets the action of the play in motion. The second and third scenes are a great deal more successful at matching character and language, with some of the most compelling moments in the play being those in which there is little or no dialogue at all. The success of these moments in THE GARAGE SALE owes a great deal to Tara Notcutt's incredibly sensitive direction, in which - as in ....MISKIEN - she has drawn some fine and detailed character work from her company of three actors. That the play indeed manages to find the through line it does in performance can almost solely be credited to Notcutt's sure and steady hand.

Kim Cloete, as Avril, delivers a resourceful performance that really hits home in the final minutes of the play. Along the way, she incorporates some wonderfully human details that bring the character to life, for instance, in the way she turns Avril's bundling of some old kitchen utensils into a five act opera or spears leftover toppings from a pizza as she laments being given the nickname "Avi".

Flip is brilliantly played by Carel Nel. Nel first establishes Flip as an abhorrent man-child, before stripping away layers of the character's showboating to reveal a truly complex human being. His work here is marvellous and thrilling.

Carel Nel as Flip in THE GARAGE SALE
Photo credit: Bronwyn Lloyd

Stefan Erasmus has the least enviable task of the three, having to portray a character that is flat and inconsistently written. While he captures certain snapshots of Michael's character in great detail, there are moments where the text just is not developed enough for Erasmus to be as believable as he should be, despite all of his efforts.

The production design for THE GARAGE SALE has been handled by Marcel Meyer, with Franklyn Steyn designing the lighting. The set, splitting the space in two halves, reflects Meyer's characteristic eye for detail, with some wonderful nuances in, for example, the branch that hangs suspended over the courtyard outside the garage. But the split set means that half of the stage is basically out of use at any given time and when the courtyard and the garage are both in use, the width of the space makes it a little like following a tennis match if everything is to be taken in by the audience. Given the limitations of the Arena's space, this might nonetheless be the best compromise given the style of the play. Steyn's lighting supports the piece well, as does the use of sound in the production. Indeed, the execution of the technical aspects of the play is beyond reproach: everything is perfectly balanced and perfectly timed.

THE GARAGE SALE makes an interesting proposal at looking at the dark underbelly of suburban life in Cape Town. But just as the word "suburban" is a generic coverall that can mean many things when unpacking the socio-political and economic realities of life in contemporary South Africa, the play deals with its content, its characters and its themes too loosely to be the kind of mordant sucker punch that THE GARAGE SALE aims to be. Hopefully, that is what this initial run of the play at Artscape's Spring Drama Season has revealed to its playwright, and perhaps Mammon will yet transform THE GARAGE SALE into a dark jewel of a play, refracting the rosy haze that characterises suburbia into a sharply penetrating ray of light that exposes the human monsters that lurk around us.

THE GARAGE SALE, which carries an age restriction of 16, runs until 11 October at 7:30pm with tickets from R40 to R90 via Computicket and 08619158000 or 0214217695. Special discounts are available for block bookings of 10 or more, pensioners, students and scholars.


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From This Author David Fick