If Shakespeare was right when he gave Antony the line, "The evil that men do lives after them," Reza De Wet's play, in a sensate production directed by Tamsin Rothschild, proves a valid point, in a monstrous way. Sussie (Christel Smith, also the producer with Tony Lepore) is discovered, at curtain-rise, sleeping in bed with Frikkie (Damon Shalit) who, it turns out, is her brother. This is a strange pair, whose weirdly disturbing relationship keeps the first act on its mystified toes. Are they, or are they not lovers? Are they, or are they not siblings? Are they, or are they not, stunted adults with white-trashy, morally and ethically deficient standards? It takes two acts of gothic horror to figure out exactly what the situation is here, but splendid performances by Shalit and Smith make it worthwhile.
Beyond telling the facts of this unusual household, it would not be fair to reveal the outcome of these somewhat misbegotten lives. The siblings have been left to support themselves on this derelict farm, located in a desert area outside Bloemfontein, where nightly they dig for water and daily they sleep for the energy to do it again the next night. When Mr. Grove (Steve Humphreys), a model of oppressive chauvinism, shows up to legalize their rights to the land, it seems the change in their lives is more than their tenuous hold on reality can sustain. Sussie and Frikkie were brought up with the religious fervor of a despoiled nun—their mother—and a vicious, brutal father, and their "games" are always a retelling of the tales of their childhood, horrid to remember, lasciviously corrupt to recount, but totally necessary to their continued existence as vital, if destroyed, human beings. Their black servant, a mostly mute Alina (Gathoni Maina), is the touchstone that remembers apartheid, as she nurtures the two desperate children as they cling to the new reality they have forged in the name of survival.
Masterful direction by Rothschild, with expressive lighting and sound design by Lepore, help make this raw play a stunning experience.
"African Gothic," presented by and at the Elephant Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A. Thu.-Sat. 8 pm, Sun. 2 pm. Jan. 22-Feb. 13. $10-15. (323) 960-7740.