Review: THE RANGERS at the Masambe Theatre Makes for a Riveting and Explosive Directorial Debut

This psycho-thriller runs from 18 March to 1 April in the Masambe Theatre at the Baxter Theatre Centre.

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THE RANGERS is a new play written and directed by Daniel Newton in his directorial debut. The 80 minute psycho-thriller is one of the most tension-wrought plays I have ever seen - and I absolutely loved it.

THE RANGERS tells the story of Zakes (Aidan Scott) and his best friend Charlie (Lyle Harold October), who travel to the depths of Northern Canada in search of the former's older brother Des (Nicholas Pauling). Des has not been seen for ten years but, annually, he sends Zakes a birthday card. The play opens with a man sitting at a table, getting into his dinner of bloody meat with a steak knife. Thereafter, we are thrown straight into the action, when Zakes and Charlie come upon what appears to be Des' cabin in the woods.

Quite honestly, THE RANGERS is not a play that I would have elected to see had I not been reviewing it - it sounded dark and ominous and I was a little scared. How glad am I that I went, however, for it turned out to be one of the best plays that I have ever seen. From the second that I entered the intimate theatre, I felt tense. The thumping heavy metal music that was playing added to that atmosphere but that coupled with the staging was what solidified my unease.

I have seen some superb staging in the Masambe Theatre but this really transformed the space. Multi-Fleur-du-Cap-award-winning stage designer Patrick Curtis outdid himself with the interior of this rustic cabin in the woods. But I am not talking about Kate Winslet's quaint cottage à la The Holiday. Everything about this staging bellows a particular kind of masculinity: it is aggressive, raw, phallic, meaty. Decked out with a rough wooden table and chair; a sunken couch; a shotgun mounted on one wall; a crude work-bench-cum-bar on which stand an assortment of jars, bottles and glasses; and (photographs acting as actual) bloody cuts of meat which hang on the back walls.

'THE GREATEST LOVE OF ALL Star Belinda Davids Returns To Joburg Theatre

Whether or not it was intentional, I saw a lot of phallic references: the gun, the botte necks and even the cuts of meat - I swear I thought they were skinned human penises. Regardless of whether this was the aim or, alternatively, whether I require a session with good old Sigmund, there is a charge of dangerous masculinity that courses through the space from before the play opens, aided by that blaring heavy metal, right until the three performers give their final bows (to a deserved standing ovation by the way). It is overwhelming.

Throughout this piece these manifestations of violent masculinity simmer, threatening to boil over into something terrible, something dangerous. Newton artfully weaves a script that suffocates the audience until near breaking point, where the tension is so taut that we are barely able to breathe. Then he scribbles some hilarious dialogue that releases us through laughter and we are able to carry on (just) as we ride the rollercoaster once more towards suspense and the threat of something going irrevocably wrong. Even the humour, however, feels menacing. The comedy emanates from jokes around disturbing subject matter like paedophilia and the carving out of genitals.

The conversations, revelations, memories and arguments that emanate between Desmond, Zakes and Charlie in different combinations show us just how quickly these kinds of relationships can flip, how fragile the peace is, and how fragile the characters' realities are, smothered by collective trauma and toxicity. The three actors keep this energy in a chokehold and never let the pace drop in this production filled with fast-paced dialogue, ever-changing dynamics and power imbalances. Ultimately, victims becoming perpetrators and the cycle of abuse, unhealed trauma and violence are themes that come to mind.

The one issue I have is that sometimes the audience missed lines because the actors did not wait for laughter to end before continuing. These brief pauses would not ruin the pace - I did not want to miss a scrap of precious dialogue.

Now for the actors themselves. Fleur du Cap winner Nicholas Pauling is superb. I recently saw him in DINNER WITH THE 42s in the same theatre in a play not entirely dissimilar from this one (in some ways at least). His velvety voice and the intensity with which he plays Desmond render his characterisation haunting. He has excellent comedic timing, managing to deliver a monologue about a traumatic childhood memory and a dream which changes the outcome thereof involving his 'guardian angel Meryl Streep' which is delivered with deadpan brilliance. Pauling is truly an outstanding performer and his physical (with mangled beard and unkempt, wild hair) and emotionally portrayal of Des impresses.

'THE GREATEST LOVE OF ALL Star Belinda Davids Returns To Joburg Theatre

Scott as Des' younger brother Zakes and October as Charlie are equally impressive. Scott plays a vegetarian who snacks on stale carrots (yet more phallic symbols) and who seems to be the gentlest of the three - and is often derided for this by Charlie who declares that he has a voice that sounds like someone who deserves to be bullied. The depth to this character is immense and Scott provides a moving and varied performance of a devoted brother.

October's character is harsher than Scott's: with a clear drinking problem and with little concern for those around him, who he often hurts with insensitive language and offensive comments. There is another side, however: one who desperately seeks approval. He is adept at moving from the dominant and aggressive to the more vulnerable and threatened. October also has superb comedic timing. There is great chemistry between all three actors as they metaphorically embody the hunter and the hunted.

In short, this play is a triumph. My mouth hung open for minutes at a time; I audibly gasped, as did other audience members. At times this play is shocking, disturbing and harrowing. It is always phenomenal.

Indeed, I am reminded, overall, of classic American realist plays: those of Sam Shepard, Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, even Tennessee Williams - not necessarily in subject matter but in style: that ominous, slow boil that explodes by the end of the production and threatens to engulf the characters. I look forward to Newton's next work: he has the chops (literally and figuratively) - if the bloody meat on the table in that opening scene is anything to go by.

THE RANGERS runs from 18 March to 1 APRIL at the Masambe Theatre at the Baxter Theatre Centre. Tickets are R150 and can be booked via Webtickets.


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