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Of human Bondage
Come, letís away to ART Prison

We are like postage stamps on an envelope of which we do not know the contents, muses British playwright Edward Bond in a letter to Robert Woodruff, who is directing the English-language stage premiere of Bondís Ollyís Prison for the American Repertory Theatre. At the center of the play is an ordinary man who in the opening scene commits an extraordinary act of violence whose inalterable reality he himself can barely comprehend. He spends the rest of Bondís spare and brutal play trying to get inside that envelope.

"Ameliorating" is not a word in the 70-year-old Bondís vocabulary. An avowed socialist as well as a poet and a theoretician of the theater, he came to prominence with the 1965 Saved, a play he calls "almost irresponsibly optimistic" despite a scene in which an infant in a pram is stoned to death. (ART founder Robert Brustein gave that work its American premiere, at Yale Repertory Theatre; Woodruff directed it in New York in 2001.) Neither has the playwright mellowed, as the harrowing Ollyís Prison, which was written for the BBC in 1993, confirms. At its center is Mike, a skittish, somewhat desperate bloke holed up in working-class digs with his sullen 16-year-old daughter, Sheila, out of whom he can coax or demand no "human" response ó until he lifts her out of her chair, holds her aloft like Christ on the cross, and strangles her dead.

The monologue that surrounds this silent act of mayhem, jerkily spoken by Bill Camp as the alternately pleading and bullying father pushed to the breaking point by the callousness of the world and the defiant daughter, bespeaks the pain of a Woyzeck-like existence at the mercy of a corrupt and oppressive social order. Mike recalls to Sheila her reaction at her motherís death: "The water didnít pour out your eyes like a kid. Poured out your whole face. I thought it was broken." Something similar might be said of Campís Mike, whoís stomping about in stocking feet, busying himself with domestic detail, his neck muscles straining, his mouth a gargoyleís grimace, as accusation and complaint and plain incomprehension are wrenched from him along with guttural sound, spit, and tears.

Mike goes to prison, but thatís not the point. In Bondís depiction, the prison inside and the one outside arenít much different. "We rowed over a teacup," Mike later says of his crime to a woman whose son hanged himself in jail ó with a rope Mike had intended as his own noose. "You donít murder over that." Bond disagrees. "A writer, nowadays," he tells ART dramaturg Kirsten Bowen, "has to put the cards on the table for the public and say: ĎThese are the consequences of your life; they are inescapable. If you want to escape violence, you donít say, ĎViolence is wrong,í you alter the conditions that create violence."

And the violence in Ollyís Prison hardly ends with the murder of the first scene. The play builds toward a bloody, whole-home-wrecking dust-up in which, through a twist of plot that hammers home Bondís agenda, the forces of "law and order" play a lavish part. Olly is not a pleasant work to watch, and though powerful, it suffers some awkwardness in its transition from TV to stage. This is minimized by director Woodruff, who has a gift for fluid staging, and by designer David Zinn, who frames the play in a fluorescent-lit white box that encloses the audience as well as the spare, viscerally compelling action. David Remediosís sound design is as notable for its long, grim silences as for the intrusions of low static or music and, in the prison, loud metallic clanks and harsh buzzers.

The acting by ART stalwarts and newcomers is nuanced or writ large, as the script demands. Angela Reed is shallow and yet heartbreaking as the "shopworn" woman invested in Mike who thinks one can move beyond crime and its internal punishment by redecorating. Karen MacDonald nails the ambivalence of the woman who lost her son to suicide, who both resents Mike and transfers her basic human need to him. Zofia Goszczynska conveys the innocent petulance of the silent Sheila, and David Wilson Barnes proves a muscular menace as her vengeful boyfriend. Thomas Derrah does a sly turn as a cigarette-fixated old jailbird, Peter Dylan Richards a deceptively cocky one as the prisoner who steals Mikeís suicidal thunder. Richardsís character is in prison for carving the eye out of a mate, to whom Mickey Solis brings a gangly bonhomie that gives way to ebbing animal suffering. The character is listed in the program as Oliver, but Bond picked the name Olly, he says, to convey universality, in that the letters can be arranged ó O for a head, two Lís for arms, an inverted Y for trunk and legs ó into a matchstick man. Easily lit. Easily broken.

Issue Date: April 15 - 21, 2005
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