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Theater Review:

"THE ISLAND," Congo Square Theatre Company at the Chicago Cultural Center’s Studio Theatre


Audiences get a stinging glimpse into the futile divisiveness of apartheid the moment they step into the Chicago Cultural Center’s Studio Theatre for Congo Square Theatre Company’s production of Athol Fugard’s "The Island." They are directed to specific sections labeled: Afrikans Only, Europeans Only or Coloureds Only. And, although it’s orchestrated within the safe confines of a theater, that overt gesture of ethnic-racial separation does not lessen its dehumanizing effects.

How appropriate, then, for viewers to physically merge with a play that draws parallels between theatrical conventions and urgent issues of the law and the unjust punishment misguided laws provoke. South African dramatist Fugard developed "The Island" with actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona through improvisation in 1973, during the height of apartheid.

This caustic but life-affirming drama is set in a prison cell on South Africa’s Robben Island, where two political prisoners – also named John and Winston – perform scenes from "The Trial of Antigone." Through Greek tragedy, they unearth the shortcomings of a justice system capable of supplanting human dignity in favor of collective tyranny.

This minimalist one-hour work can be a brutal exercise in endurance as these two omnipresent actors alternate between their characters’ empty, soul-deflating lives in prison and the grandeur of ancient thespians . The reference to the Greeks echoes a belief that theater was everyone’s civic duty to attend in order to be moved to action by its ethical force. John and Winston have forged an inextricable bond, which slowly gets loosened when John (who also plays Creon) is told he can go free in three months, while Winston (in the Antigone role) is sentenced to life imprisonment.

Fugard and his original improvisers experimented with the question of defying the law as reflected in the classic account of Antigone risking her own life in order to bury her disgraced warrior-brother despite a law against the proper burial of traitors. What is conveyed through the play’s crushing moments of isolation and its spirit-rousing theatrical scenes is the dauntless human belief in principles at all costs. The men’s dual roles add a deeper gravity to Winston’s weary proclamation of "I go to my living death."

Director Derrick Sanders approaches the Congo Square production from a true makeshift theatrical perspective. The bare set is dotted with a few versatile home-made props, like a mat that becomes Creon’s robe and a mop head that doubles as Antigone’s wig. The starkness effectively underscores the identity-swiping nature of the play and lets us experience psychologically the unspeakable voids in these men’s lives.

Although the actors can plunge more forcefully into their characters’ desperation and fortitude, they succeed in taking viewers on a blistering journey through an eternity of hell on earth. Reginald Nelson endows the soon-to-be-released John with a gamut of complex and contradictory dimensions that stand for a larger disruption of the human spirit. His laser focus and firmly planted conviction are a powerful counterpoint to Will Sims II’s less hopeful and less definitive Winston, who has resolved himself to a noble but heartbreaking "living death."•

Congo Square Theatre Company’s production of "The Island" runs through June 10 at the Chicago Cultural Center’s Studio Theatre, 77 E. Randolph. Tickets: $15. Call 773-913-5808.

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