Friday, February 5, 2010

New Review Posted: The Island

Centerstage has posted my review of Athol Fugard's The Island, performed by Remy Bumppo at the Greenhouse Theatre. It's rough stuff, but well done. I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about the show, which I think the review reflects, but I'm interested to hear what other people who saw it thought. It's certainly worth a trip, especially with the other Fugard being done around town. Here's the text:

Two men stand on a beach, with shovels and wheelbarrow. Each shovels sand into the wheelbarrow, fills it, and dumps it in front of the other. It's painful and humiliating for the men doing it, alternately horrifying, fascinating and dull for the audience watching. And it goes on for nearly 10 minutes before anyone says a word.

That's the bravura opening of "The Island," by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona (the latter two starred in the original production). The set is spare and the shovels, wheelbarrow and sand all imaginary. But it's a perfect evocation of the place and time: the early 1970s on Robben Island, a prison colony off the coast of South Africa for those accused of political crime (usually protests against Apartheid). Director James Bohnen and actors La Shawn Banks (John) and Kamal Angelo Bolden (Winston) perfectly express the physical pain and psychological wear of life on the island, and the inner strength allowing them to survive.

The cellmates maintain fragile equilibrium, which is disrupted by two things: Winston's plan for them to perform a sequence from Sophocles' Antigone at an inmate concert (with John, in drag, as Antigone), and the success of Winston's appeal, which will end his prison term in only three months.

It's rough stuff, more to be admired than loved, and not without flaws; it's never completely clear what makes Winston flip back and forth between consenting to play Antigone and refusing. And the good news for South Africa — the end of Apartheid — is not necessarily good for the play. Instead of a pressing social statement, it's a period piece, which unavoidably saps some of the play's energy.

But a reminder of human brutality — and the strength to rise above it — is always necessary, and Banks and Bolden bring passion and brutal realism to their roles. It's not easy to watch, but those with the strength to visit such a dark place will find real rewards.

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