It's an irony fit to choke on: A sadistic, day-long punishment designed to turn man against man hasn't broken the friendship between Winston and John, political prisoners and cellmates on South Africa's notorious Robben Island. But the unexpected good news one of them receives that evening just might.
We first see them at the start of Athol Fugard's 1973 drama, The Island, locked in endless, futile, backbreaking labor in a scene that echoes the last part of Martin Sherman's Bent; each only adding to the load the other ultimately has to carry. After filling their separate wheelbarrows with shovelfuls of wet sand on the island's shore, each jams his spade into the earth and carts the load in parallel semicircles to the place where their partner just dug. They lift the handles high, in a gesture that might, for a moment, suggest defiance, as they dump the heavy sand back onto the beach. Then each takes up the shovel the other left behind. They begin to fill the wheelbarrows again.
Call it Sisyphus in stereo; a torture designed to break men down—or get them to break down one another. How effective is it? After tending to each others' wounds that night, both admit how much they hated one another in the heat of the day. Winston observes that was exactly what their tormentor, a guard they've nicknamed Hodoshe, wanted.
But shortly after the inhabitants of Cell 42 begin rehearsal on an improvised scene for a prison concert later that week, guards suddenly take John away. He seems dazed when he returns. He's just learned his sentence has been reduced; he'll be free in three months' time.
After their initial euphoria, the counting begins. John starts numbering down the days to his release—as an increasingly desperate Winston can't stop reckoning up the years left in his life sentence.
International productions of The Island helped publicize the atrocities of apartheid in the 1970s and '80s—indeed, it's one of a handful of plays directly credited as having helped bring it down. Clearly, to play the work politely or by half-measures would do a disservice to the ones who lived the tale. This gripping Little Green Pig production fully earns the ninth five-star review this paper has conferred since 2003 by staging the world of prisoners Winston and John with discernment and authenticity—all the way down to the alkali marks that ring the mouths of actors LaMark Wright as Winston and Thaddaeus Edwards as John as they meticulously mime the exertions of the opening scene.
Together, the chemistry of these two actors is significant in this pressurized drama. To that we must add Edwards' and Wright's singular individual moments during the play. In a scene where a wounded Winston rises from a heap on the floor to call out the guard who injured him, Wright scaled a dizzying range, from guttural groans of pain to the highest velocities of rage.
Later, when John improvises a fake telephone call home to raise their spirits—using one of the tin cans the prisoners must drink from—Edwards captures the spontaneous glee of the moment, until the magic suddenly stops for John in mid-sentence. In Edwards, we see the desolation of someone who's just remembered how far he is from home; the emotional shift is sudden, devastating—and undeniably real.
New director and veteran actor Michael O'Foghludha has helped two promising young actors carve out twin career-best performances. Though Andy Parks' lighting design could easily have been a bit more claustrophobic in the cell scenes, Adam Sampieri's sound design added to the ambience of the world—until a final song cue seemed to inappropriately rescue the pair.
It's worth noting that John and Winston's prison concert play, Antigone, juxtaposes an ancient civilization's struggle against unjust rule with the fight 20 to 30 years ago in South Africa. When two actors so fully embody the struggle as Edwards and Wright do, it comes alive again, reminding us not only of the glory of liberation, but its very high price as well. —Byron Woods
E-mail Byron Woods at email@example.com.
The performers are the highlight of Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, in Ghost & Spice Productions' presentation of Eric Bogosian's Obie-winning series of monologues. Bogosian's 1990 work compiles scenes loosely connected by their references to the aforementioned hipsters' holy trinity. Originally conceived as performance art, with himself presenting all the riffs, this script does not involve interactions among characters or coalesce into a narrative; nor does it come to any particular conclusion, other than, perhaps, that the world is full of weak, crude and crazy folks who make great subjects of satire.
In G&S's version, four actors perform 10 scenes, which are interspersed with songs from a local rock 'n' roll band. (There's a different band each night: See G&S' Web site, www.ghostandspice.com.) On opening night, the Pneurotics played, and one was grateful—as high-amp sound ricocheted in the small theater—for the earplugs handed out at the door. Using the bands is a clever idea (which would probably work better if they were as raunchy as the characters), but on opening night the transitions were rough enough that, rather than increasing the energy in the room, the device drained away the energy generated by the characters, as the band announced itself and got itself going. Crashing chords impinging on the characters' exits would be more effective.
Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll opens with a scene in which a self-justifying, self-responsibility-shirking junkie panhandler (Rus Hames, who also directs) harangues the audience. Maybe Bogosian thought he was stretching this out, exaggerating the essential absurdity of the bum's non-logic until it was amusing, but since I get this rap run on me, almost verbatim, on a regular basis, I found it rather lacking in humor. Hames, however, did the thing very well—almost as well as in his presentation of the most admirable character of the lot, "Bottleman," a pathetic soul who's given up his drugs of coffee and cigarettes and still can't quite manage even the minimal necessity of food with his scavenging work, but who does his best to stay on the sunny side (after all, he could be living in Ethiopia). "You figure, egg salad sandwich's gonna run you maybe 78 bottles. I'm findin' maybe 50 bottles a day—you're talking a shortfall of about 20 bottles ... or cans." With three competing scavengers desperately working my block, I couldn't find any laughter in this scene either.
The other scenes are much funnier. Anthony Hughes is hilarious in "Recovering," a send-up of group therapy for those with offending male anatomy, and as the amoral rock music lawyer. Jeff Alguire (who I'd watch do anything on stage) gives three kicking performances, as a degenerate rock star in a TV interview; as an uncultured striver trying to live large; and as a total screw-up Jersey boy relating the story of a drugged out train-wreck of a stag party. This is the best of the stories, as far as drugs go, giving a very clear picture of just how the house gets torn down when its inhabitants play mix and match with the blow, the smoke, the beer, and especially the Jack Black and the 'ludes. (Kinda reminded me of the time we set the house on fire and had to go out on the roof to finish the Bacardi 151 ... oh man, it was hilarious, you shoulda been there.)
Versatile actress Lormarev Jones saves us from atmospheric testosterone poisoning with her recorded phone-sex bit. She's priceless in her diatribe in "Dirt," and absolutely spot-on as the stoned, non-producing, sensibly paranoid "Artist" who wraps up the show with her assertion that "the only way to escape the system is not to do anything." Fortunately, the theater artists of Ghost & Spice take the opposite tack, and do everything, with a fearless zest. —Kate Dobbs Ariail