Sylvaine Strike, director/actor/playwright and any other creative word one can dream up, currently has two major plays running – the one, Firefly,  at The Baxter’s Flip Side Theatre until April 9 and the other, Kiss of the Spiderwoman, at the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees with the last show on April 1. DIANE DE BEER reviews: 

I was blessed to see both productions with the one at the start and the other at the end of a run. Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre heralded a strong emergence of theatre in this period where many of us are still holding our breath, and the Strike double whammy is a theatre-starved public’s salvation.

The bewitching Firefly, which as one of the first Covid-19 impacted productions saw light of day as a Woordfees digital production, made a magically mesmerising transition. I had lost my heart earlier to the filmed production and was excitedly inquisitive at how that particular story – with many filmic tricks up its sleeve – would translate and transform on stage.

But this particular creative quartet (Strike, Andrew Buckland, Toni Morkel as director and Tony Bentel on piano) are the perfect combo. This is their theatrical landscape. Give them a stage and they will start telling stories in such an imaginative way, it becomes a visual feast.

Firefly with Sylvaine Strike and Andrew Buckland. Picture: Nardus Engelbrecht

Because they have all worked together, they understand each other’s strengths, and Morkel could stretch that piece of string intuitively with fantastically imaginative and explosive pyrotechnics.

Buckland and Strike are a brilliant blend of artistry with an instinct for detail that holds your attention gently yet persistently. Storytelling is their forte, aided by the fact that they have an endless supply of tools to draw on to embellish a wink or the final lift of a foot to express and underline the tiniest emotion.

It is theatre at its best when it has you smiling from start to finish because of the artistry, the wizardry of the production, the perfection of the coupling, and just the sheer audacity of the storytelling.

Firefly with Sylvaine Strike and Andrew Buckland. Picture: Nardus Engelbrecht

No matter how or why, just immerse yourself and see what happens when Saartjie Botha commands two artists to give her a production in the purest style of theatre.

If you have seen the digital version that’s  a bonus, because to witness how one story can be told in such magnificent splendour in two completely different approaches is truly special and quite rare. The one had all the bells and whistles and worked like a charm. But here, with Strike and Buckland live on stage with just themselves to grab hold of their audience and cast that spell, the essence of theatre comes into play – and again I willingly lost my heart.

Add to the two artists on stage, the magnificence of Wolf Britz’s set and props as well as starstruck-inducing lighting and the keyboard genius of Bentel’s soundtrack that holds every emotion so thrillingly in a familiar yet completely Bentel-constructed composition.

If you want to see how the best make theatre with their instincts, intuition and imagination, don’t miss the sparkling Firefly. Yet don’t think for one second that the miracle unfolding on stage didn’t come with buckets of blood, sweat, tears and ENDLESS talent. Part of the theatrical trickery of this foursome is to present something that is this skilled as seemingly effortless.

It’s brilliant and personally I hope to see this travel around the country casting its spell throughout. We are desperately in need of this kind of adult fairy tale in these tumultuous times.

And then there’s Strike the director in Kiss of the Spider Woman, a play she has always wanted to do and again, perfect for these times.

Casting the vibrant acting duo Wessel Pretorius and Mbulelo Grootboom was genius in itself and created fireworks from the start. Their styles suit the different characters of the two men trapped in a confined space which doesn’t only inhibit their bodies and movement, but also their minds.

And with the same impact that theatre has on our welcome release from the strictest lockdown rules, these two escape into an imaginary world to release their anguish, which is difficult to avoid in this cruelly confined and claustrophobic space. If they want to survive this ordeal, they have to find a way to caress their minds in a mindful yet almost mysterious and magical way. Storytelling is the obvious solution and with Pretorius’s Molina someone who has long ago created a world where he can live out his fantasies, he is the perfect conduit for playwright Manuel Puig’s escapist fantasy.

Watching these two men in a dance of deliverance in a fight for a freedom that can only be obtained through their imagination is enchanting and with these past few years still part of our daily minds, we understand what is missing in our lives with the total absence of this kind of artistry. Puig’s Kiss masterfully underlines the impact of the theatrical when lives could become meaningless.

Molina has a few props as he cunningly fabricates feminine style with anything he can find but more than anything, it is his feline movements and the visual aphrodisiac that in this instance is the result not only of their imprisonment but also the way that Molina penetrates the more stoic Valentin’s being.

How could they not turn to one another, reach out and finally hold and nurture the other’s vulnerability in a space that is relentlessly cold? Nothing matters, our prejudices dissipate and the only thing that gives meaning is the humanity of the other.

With Strike’s razor-sharp eye and precise direction, Mbulelo and Pretorius’s complementing acting styles as well as their individually contrasting physical presence hit all the right boxes.

While the play runs without interval for two hours, it is mesmerising, never letting go.

I was transfixed.

Sylvaine Strike Pays Homage to Sam Shepard in Curse of the Starving Class

Pictures: Antoine de Ras

Sylvaine Strike is presenting her latest work, Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class, at this year’s Stellenbosch-based Woordfees (March 2 to 11). She tells DIANE DE BEER about her connection with the late playwright Sam Shepard, this specific play which is perfect for this time, and how she works with her merry band of actors to establish her Fortune Cookie Theatre Company brand:

And now this riveting production is finally also playing at the Baxter Flipside from October 15 to 27. For production and performances alone it is sublime and then there’s Sam Shepard’s amazing words and story:


Curse Poster

“We meet the Tate Family at their worst.”

That’s director Sylvaine Strike speaking about her latest work, Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class, which premiered at the Stellenbosch-based Woordfees (March 2 to 11) before returning to Gauteng (still holding thumbs) and hopefully seasons around the country with this run at the Baxter Flipside the first of many.

“I’ve always felt that I completely get him,” she says about the American playwright who died last year and whose work is being looked at again as a result, with a few local productions planned, Honeyman’s Fools for Love recently at  The Market one of them.

When Strike was asked by Saartjie Botha, director of the Woordfees, to do something for this year’s festival, she suggested a Shepard play and together they decided that they wouldn’t adapt but put on the play as is. Strike giggles at the synchronicity when she points out that their first performance was scheduled – to the day – 40 years after it was first performed on Friday March 2.

This is Shepard’s most autobiographical work about his father, someone who features in different variations in many of his plays. Writing was the way he described dealing with his despairing childhood. “Part of him was growing on me. I could feel him taking over me. I could feel myself retreating,” says the son in Curse of the Starving Class. The father might be at the centre but the playwright is reaching wide, as he deals with the little people, those targeted most cruelly by the greed of the day, people who feel they have nowhere to turn.

Sound familiar? Think of the poverty numbers in our country, those targeted most brutally by the greed of the ruling classes. Even when written more than 40 years ago, it plays perfectly for our times and not only because of Donald Trump. Curse of the Starving Class circles around a dysfunctional family fighting the financial hardships, the disintegration of their family farm.

“It’s the perfect nucleus family, a mother, father and two children, a son and a daughter. And they’re completely dysfunctional,” says the director, conceding that this is all right up her street – especially on stage. How did they get there? What has happened to them? These are all questions she investigates. Even the door to their home is broken down and the father feels he can’t protect his family. That kind of desperation and neediness comes with its own set of intruders, waiting for easy prey.

For Strike, it was also time to walk a different road and the way her mind works, moving from Molière (The Miser and Tartuffe in the past few years) to Shepard makes complete sense – the choice seeming almost as dysfunctional as the family in the play. But it’s Strike and watching her work is a theatrical experience – completely magical.

But don’t let the title of the play mislead you. It’s not all about the horror of the hardship, there’s always hope and with Strike and Shepard, there’s always a smile. Even though Sherpard is scratching around in a family’s wounds, he never loses his sense of humour and Strike makes light of things where she can with movement and certain characters who in their lewdness are also laughable in a good way. It’s part of her branding, a hopefulness with something mystical hovering.

Neil McCarthy and Leila Henriques in Curse
Neil McCarthy and Leila Henriques in Curse of the Starving Class

Her cast is an indication of her intent. It’s a wildly talented bunch, including Neil McCarthy, Rob van Vuuren, Leila Henriques, Roberto Pombo, Anthony Coleman, Inge Crafford-Lazarus and Damon Berry, some of whom might strike a certain comical chord.

Playing the father is McCarthy, who returned to the stage with a flamboyant flourish for Tartuffe and asked Strike, following the hugely successful season and his reconnection with live performance, to consider him for her next work. She did, hence his casting as the father in a completely different role to his previous outing. And this time opposite Henriques, someone who was seen on stage more recently in the brilliant Florence . With her unique qualities, including a heart-wrenching vulnerability required for the mother in this particular story, it’s another casting coup. And the pair live up to all the promise magnificently and are a sheer joy to experience.

The two children – 17 and 15 – are played by relative newbies for this type of play, Pombo and Crafford-Lazarus, who were both put through strenuous auditions because of their pivotal part in the play which they passed with flying colours; with Van Vuuren, Coleman and Berry completing the cast with their own specific talents.

Nothing is ever random for this director and that’s what makes the casting so exciting and intriguing.

There’s something messy and chaotic about a Shepard play which is why the rhythms of these characters are so important. “It also gives the actors a sense of safety,” Strike says assuredly.

Music looms large in the rehearsal room. Shepard was as much a musician in his early days as a writer. It has been recorded that rhythm led him to character and with that in mind, Strike, always unique in her acting and performance methods, uses music to get her actors marching to the right beat. It’s extraordinary to watch as they work their way through a scene musically before they do it with dialogue. There’s as much meaning in the movement as there is in the text and that is as much Strike as it is Shepard.

Roberto Pombo and Inge Crafford-Lazarus
Roberto Pombo and Inge Crafford-Lazarus as the children of the family in Strike’s  Sam Shepard play

“I adore bluegrass music,” she says about her choices of Canadian band The Dead South and Australian Paul Kelly. “It is often profound,” she says about the genre, “despite its joviality and upbeat rhythms. Shepard’s writing is musical, he himself was a percussionist, and adored music, from Dixieland to Dizzy Gillespie – he was a great lover of jazz, and his work in many ways reminds one of jazz compositions. It is unpredictable, and yet impeccably structured.”

It is exactly the way she thinks about theatre and why she feels this bond. Listening and watching just a few scenes in early rehearsals, already it is the emotions that come pouring out and engulf you. That’s where the heart of this work lies.

Other influences include the paintings of Edward Hopper and the photographs of Gregory Crewdson, both of whom hold a certain desolation and deep feelings of loss.

Holding all of this together is her trademark and where Strike’s genius comes into play – gloriously.