Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Review of "The Island" 9-02-06, part of Philadelphia Fringe Festival

Long before The Shawshank Redemption and Cool Hand Luke, African men suffered unjust sentences in Robben Island prison. This Apartheid-era institution that once housed Nelson Mandela is brought to life in The Island, a powerhouse of a play by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona. Their play bears witness to the suffering of two men, John and Winston; both sentenced for violations of the unjust racial policies of the state. In the midst of their struggle, they prepare to stage Antigone at a prison concert, and the play centers around the bond between them, their plight, and their ultimate understanding of that play in relation to their lives.

Any director attempting to stage The Island must answer one question for the audience: Why stage a production of Antigone, an ancient Greek myth, while imprisoned? In answering this question, director Daniel Rodriguez and actors Kenard Bunkley and Jeffrey Cousar both succeed and fail in what is ultimately an uneven production.

Most of this imbalance occurs because of a failure to answer that question in one respect. John and Winston stage Antigone as a political protest against the unjust Apartheid regime. But this production loses that element of the play. Some of this is because as John, Bunkley yells so many of his lines that it is difficult to determine what is rage, and what frustration. Then, when John tries to explain to Winston why they perform Antigone as their protest against the state, his words carry little force. As a result, the striking similarities between their cause and Antigone’s go unrealized. This is a shame and a fault, because both actors possess the skill to make this happen, and the audience misses much that the play offers as a result.

As Winston, Cousar gives a solid performance that suffers only when Bunkley overshadows him. His portrayal flows easily between rage at the guards, despair over his life-sentence, and envy at John’s commuted sentence. However, the deep friendship between these two is blurred by a dynamic that is one-sided; as Bunkley’s singular loudness eliminates Cousar’s tempered responses. When Winston curses John’s newfound freedom, the shock that should have occurred is lost with the sorrow of his advice when he tells John, “Forget me.”

When he wasn’t yelling, Bunkley did prove his abilities in the softer moments of the play. Many of these were exceedingly powerful in their execution: when he feigns a call home, when he portrays Creon during the concert, and mostly when he despairs over his realization that an appeal will soon set him free. Again an imbalance, as he fails to make this depth more evident throughout the play.

The productions best moments occur in their answer to the question, “Why Antigone?” Here the actors displayed the existential force of this piece, as two prisoners performing Antigone because they must hold true to the ideals that give their lives meaning. John receives his reprieve and stays awake counting down the days remaining. Winston tries to count down the balance of his life sentence, and without inflection merely counts out “one, one, one…” In this chilling moment, he refuses to indulge in self-pity, realizes why he must perform Antigone, and forces the audience to share in his plight.

The Island is one of the 20th Century’s best plays, and this production brings out many of the elements that make it such. There are many beautifully performed moments here, but unfortunately Rodriguez never integrates these into a coherent whole. However, this production is worth seeing for those moments that do realize the full force of the play’s theme: that we must live true to our ideals under any conditions, no matter how unjust the times in which we live.

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