I’m fairly certain that I’ll quickly exhaust my capacity to describe the phenomenal South African Baxter Theatre’s Karoo Moose – No Fathers, particularly since I am doing something that I never do on this blog, which is: I’m writing about a performance immediately after seeing it. But I want to post about Karoo Moose before it leaves town, because – to borrow the FoF’s own marketing language – “this is the one” everyone’s going to be sorry they missed when they hear others talking about it.
The story told here is of a village “where time is of little consequence” and “where children don’t stay children very long.” It’s a story that is both harrowing and hopeful. The moose of the title is an escaped zoo animal that has been roaming the outskirts of a village in the Karoo of South Africa. This “unimaginable wild beast” captivates the fearful imaginations of the village children, but the real danger to them lurks within the town’s confines and stems from poverty, despair, hunger, and lack of access to education and opportunity. A family’s children are hungry; their mother is dead, and their father is a drunken loser, in debt to a pair of menacing thugs. After a particularly bad wager, he barters his teenaged daughter to the two men to pay his debt, proving the second part of the play’s title, that this is a village of “no fathers.”
The story spills out from this incident to encompass the moose, a whole village’s worth of characters, and a white police officer whose family has been marked by similar violence. The cast of six superb performers – four men and two women – present the narrative through a spellbinding combination of storytelling, dance, song, and acting. Karoo Moose is “poor theater” at its absolute finest. The scenery is minimal; instead, the story is brought to life with the help of an array of objects lining the perimeter of the stage – among them palm fronds, boxes, plastic jugs, planks, drums, a sled, a wheelbarrow, fishing nets, and various costume pieces – all of which are transformed by the actors with adroit precision into the scenic elements necessary for the action.
Director/writer Lara Foot’s theatrical instincts yield brilliant moments of inventive and ingenious staging. For example, instead of presenting us with a “realistic” simulated sexual assault, she figures the rape as a kind of horrific soccer match with the young girl standing in for the goal; the substitution makes the violence of the assault all the more awful to watch because the ugly, testosterone-fueled energy of the men kicking the ball is all-too-familiar. Other memorable moments of theatrical magic include the eloquent and powerful evocation of the moose and a stunning moment – one that actually made me gasp! – when the girl gives birth, simultaneously, to her baby and her self.
Woven into and around the storytelling are songs – which are sung mainly a cappella and in exquisite harmony – accompanied by music produced on a variety of objects, including, at one point, a knife on a head of lettuce and a plastic bag filled with what sounded like bits of glass. The versatile actors – working in both English and Xhosa – each play multiple roles, metamorphosing in the blink of an eye from child to adult or narrator to character and back again as the story pulses along. I know that in past I have shown scant patience for plays that rely too heavily on narration; Karoo Moose is the exception that demonstrates how that can and should be done. When the actors narrate, it’s to establish tone and set the scene, not to describe the action. Moreover, in their hands the story itself becomes another character in the play – its trajectory becomes part of the whole, as the storytellers react to the characters’ choices and nudge the narrative in a new direction.
The members of the ensemble are Zoleka Helesi, Mdu Kweyama, Bongile Mantsai, Thami Mbongo, Chuma Sopotela, and Mfundo Tshazibane; I wish I could tell you which characters each of them played, but unfortunately the program only lists the performers’ names and not their parts. They are all exceptional, and they create a fully realized and emotionally impactful world through brilliant ensemble work. You have four more opportunities to see this beautiful work of theater; do it!