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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review

Man is the only animal to be trapped by time. That's the real labyrinth and to get out of it we have got to plan and build very fast, and bigger than before --- Danilo, the young progressive who has come to persuade Dimetos, an engineer, to return to the city he built and then left for a more uneventful life.
Unlike Athol Fugard's best known and most frequently produced plays, Dimetos is not about race in his native South Africa though you might say the questions it poses include the moral decay that can erode the hope of a civilized world built on hope. It also bears the imprint of its author's penchant for rather obvious metaphors and central characters whose weaknesses tug at their strengths and who are trapped in a shell by their inability or unwillingness to fit the general societal mold -- in this case a highly skilled engineer who left the city he helped to make strong for a slower-paced existence in an isolated village.

Stylistically, Dimetos has the feel of a Greek tragedy though the impetus comes from Albert Camus' line "Once upon a time there was a man who dreamt he was a horse." The symbolism filled parable isn't easy to stage. Figuring out how to deal with the rescue of a horse trapped in a well requires directorial ingenuity, especially on a small stage. Short of bringing on a horse, how do you dramatize the opening scene in which a young girl, under the guidance of her engineer uncle, the title character, sits astride the frightened animal as she attaches the ropes by which the rescuers above ground will pull the animal to safety?

Happily, director Peter Wallace has managed to create this scene simply but with an intensity that gets things off to a bang-up, start -- literally so, as the lights cast the stage into darkness and your seat seems to vibrate with the rumbling from the sound of the galloping, frightened horse stumbling and falling into the deep well (a hole towards the front and side of the abstract set). The darkness lifts just enough to reveal the naked upper body of the young Lydia (Tara Franklin). The instructions issued from the unseen Dimetos add to the mood and theme-setting drama of the moment.

The difficulties of staging this play, which explain why it is so rarely seen, are exacerbated by the big chunks of lyrical dialogue that often defy being delivered as natural talk. Eric Hill, who could easily rest on his laurels as a director has gamely chosen to end his six year hiatus from acting as the title character to whom Fugard has given the longest and most emotionally taxing speeches. Though he rises to the challenge, the script's murky and at times absurdist second act, prevents Dimetos, from being a fully realized character instead of a metaphor made concrete. The trapped horse, as is evident from that dynamic beginning, is metaphor for the tormented Dimetos -- a man trapped in the deep well of coping with the darker side of modern civilization and his own nature (his unacknowledged passion for the niece, played with luminous passion by Ms. Franklin).

As Dimetos is not easy to mount or perform, neither is it easy to watch. The first act's ten scenes set out the conflict raging within Dimetos and leading to the inevitable tragedy straightforwardly enough. As Lydia joyously and triumphantly discusses the rescue of the horse with Dimetos, a stranger from the city he left behind three years ago arrives to plead for him to return to help save it from deterioration. Danilo (Jeremy Davidson in a credible and emotion-charged performance that brings memories of his dynamic rendition of the Marquis de Sade in BTF's Quills), unlike Dimetos who seems resigned to wait for whatever time will bring, is a fighter to whom the talents of men like Dimetos cannot remain unused if civilization (his city) is to survive. But this being a Greek tragedy, Danilo is a flawed emissary. His impatience antagonizes the loyal housekeeper, Sophia (Anne O'Sullivan, another strong supporting player) and, in a scene that sizzles with exploding sexuality, destroys the innocent Lydia's attraction for him as well as her faith in her uncle.

While there's enough effective dramaturgy to overlook the often debate-like quality of the dialogue during the first act, the shorter but longer-seeming second act collapses under its histrionics and absurdism. When Dimetos, now living in a coastal village with Sophia, sits at a table trying to find meaning in the stones he compulsively arranges and rearranges you begin to see him less as a tragic Greek figure than a brilliant but clinically depressed man who is more in need of a psychopharmacologist than a rescuing ghost. Like Dimetos, Wallace seems to have lost his way, especially in the over-the-top business he has devised for Sophia.

Its considerable flaws notwithstanding, Dimetos, fits the Unicorn Theatre's commitment to adventurous, thought-provoking theater. For Fugard fans it's a rare opportunity to see a neglected and stylistically different work. It may not be a priceless jewel, but it is certainly one that has been polished to a fine gloss.

Links to other CurtainUp reviews of Fugard plays:
Sorrows and Rejoicings
Valley Song
The Island
Captain's Tiger

Author: Athol Fugard
Director: Peter Wallace
Cast: Eric Hil as /Dimetos; Anne O'Sullivan as his housekeeper, Tara Franklin as his niece Lydia, Jeremy Davidson as Danilo
Scenic Design: Katya DeBear
Costumes: Elizabeth Bourgeois
Lights: Deb Sullivan
Sound: Phillip Scott Peglow
Running time: 2 hours and 5 minutes, including one 10-minute intermission
Berkshire Theatre Festival/Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge, MA. 413/298-5536 www.berkshire
6/12/02-6/29/02; opening 6/13/02
Mon--Saturdays 8:30 -- $25, all general admission
Reviewed by Elyse Sommerbased on June 14th performance
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