REVIEW: The Island (Remy Bumppo)

Friendship comes first in revival of Fugard prison drama

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Remy Bumppo presents:

The Island

by Athol Fugard
directed by James Bohnen
through March 7th (more info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Athol Fugard’s The Island begins with prisoners Winston (Kamal Angelo Bolden) and John (La Shawn Banks) shoveling sand into wheelbarrows on opposite sides of the stage. When each prisoner’s wheelbarrow is full, he empties it into the other man’s freshly dug pit, returns to his original position, and then repeats the entire process. their only redemption the foreman’s whistle. This opening sequence is monotonous and continues for nearly ten minues, but is extremely effective in showing how South Africa’s Robben Island prison exhausted its population into complacency. When not being mentally and physically tortured, the two cell mates rehearse a stripped-down Antigone for the prison’s talent show, with Winston as Antigone, much to his disdain, and John as her dominating uncle Creon.

The relationship between these two men is the anchor of the production, directed by James Bohnen, and Banks brings a mature, caring energy to the stage that nurtures Bolden’s more brutish Winston. What this season’s FugardChicago mini-festival – which includes Timeline Theatre‘s Master Harold…and the Boys  (currently playing) and Court Theatre‘s Sizwe Banzi Is Dead (this past May) – has shown thus far is the playwright’s ability to develop beautiful friendships from the dreary circumstances of apartheid South Africa, and the two actors of The Island capture the complicated dynamics of their characters’ friendship.

The Island, like most of Fugard’s work, is heavy on political commentary, and while the writing is intelligent and thought-provoking, the language often becomes very formal, too much like a reading of an essay rather than real human dialogue. During the performance of Antigone this feels appropriate, but feels out of place when it appears in the scenes of the two men speaking casually, and Fugard’s intellectual perception of prison ends up sacrificing much of the visceral pain seen in the opening in favor of bookish monologues that veer into heady territory.

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Athol Fugard is able to probe into the emotional damage inflicted by the prison system when John learns that his sentence has been reduced, joyous news that means an end to the bond that Winston and he have formed over the past two years. Bolden’s reaction is pitch-perfect, and the overwhelming sense of hope and relief shared by the two actors in the initial moments following the announcement is one of the show’s highlights. But as the painful reality of Winston’s life sentence begins to sink in, envious feelings become hostility, putting the duo’s production of Antigone at risk. As the men overcome their anguish and shame together, they reveal how friendship can heal the broken spirit, a theme so prevalent in the playwright’s work that it must be true.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

Creative Team: Athol Fugard, Winston Ntshona, John Kami (playwrights), James Bohnen (Director), JR Lederie (Light Design), Tim Morrison (Set Design), Rachel Laritz (Costume Design), Victoria Delorio (Sound Design)

Cast: La Shawn Banks, Austin Talley, Kamal Angelo Bolden

 Recommended production links:

One Response

  1. […] African writer’s lesser-produced works. Like The Island (which closed at Remy Bumppo in March – our review ★★½), Sizwe was co-written by the original actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, who ended up […]

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