by Edward Bond
A.R.T. at Zero Arrow Theatre
Mass. Ave & Arrow St., Harvard Sq. Cambridge / (617) 547-8300
Through Apr. 24

Reviewed by Will Stackman

The cast features three A.R.T. veterans; multiple IRNE winner Karen MacDonald as a pivotal character, IRNE nominee Bill Camp in the lead, with IRNE winner Thomas Derrah in a cameo role. The director is Robert Woodruff, the company's artistic director. The occasion is the inaugural original production for their more or less completed second stage on the corner of Mass. Ave and Arrow St., the first new theatre built in Harvard Square since the Loeb was squeezed onto its lot on Brattle St. The play is by aging British playwright, Edward Bond, known for violent moments and working class angst. The script for "Olly's Prison" was written as a teleplay in 1993 as a response to the presumed end of the cold war and what the author perceives as the failure of socialism. The climax trashes the set, there's onstage death, and the show runs at least three hours with intermission. An angry young man has turned into a sour old sod, though there's still a rough poetry to his dialogue.

Camp has the lead as Mike, a widowed working man. He's being pursued by Angela Reed's Vera, who lives in the same housing block and does for him and his daughter. The show opens with a half hour long monologue directed at the girl who sits mute ignoring her father and his efforts to get her to speak. Camp's intensity makes this "talking heads" type scene thrilling. Indeed, the whole action, which proceeds from the girl's death--possibly accidental--during his tirade, is downhill for two and one-half hours afterward. Everything the author actually has to say about the frustration of modern society is summed up in this prologue. When other characters later in the piece, such as Vera, get their chance to go on and on, the audience starts looking at their watches. Reed has a particularly difficult task since her character talks about herself more than most, and this experienced actress hasn't found a way to get beyond this self-commentary. However, near the end of the first part, more than an hour and a half in, MacDonald appears as a new face, Ellen, the mother of a son who's hanged himself in jail. She skillfully rounds out this ordinary person. When Ellen winds up naked in bed with Mike in the very last scene, the two might even reach some kind of conclusion, except that the author prefers repeat his sour assessment of today's life, circa 1993, once more before the blackout. It's deja vu all over again.

The title character, Olly himself played by Mickey Solis, a second year A.R.T./MXAT Institute student, doesn't show up until some way into the hour long second part. He becomes the victim of David Wilson Barnes as Frank, daughter Sheila's putative fiance, now a police detective. Her mute presence, incidentally, is played by local actress Zofia Goszczynska, seen last fall in Mill 6's "The Play About the Baby". Frank, to who Olly gives the freehold on his flat, joined the police force and becomes an establishment tool now ready for revenge, just for the hell of it apparently. Essentially, Bond has no respect for any of these characters, except perhaps grudgingly for Mike's dogged attempts to understand his dismal world. "Olly's Prison" has all the foreboding of Greek tragedy without any real philosophical or religious anchor. Disappointed leftists can be really depressing.

This is director Woodruff's first major attempt at doing Bond since a revival of ''Saved" in NYC in 2001. The "baby stoning play" which launched the author on his career in 1965 was instrumental in the eventual abolishment of censorship by the Lord Chamberlain, perhaps Bond's major achievement. His ear for the poetic potential of common speech is often defeated by clumsy scene construction and rambling dramatic action. Monologues such as the prologue could be abstracted and made more interesting without extraneous plotting. It's not surprising that his most notable work in film was for "Blow-Up", remembered primarily for its visual storytelling, though the movie won an Oscar for its original screenplay.

The set and costumes for this production are by David Zinn who was responsible for the A.R.T. interesting if overdone "Highway Ulysses" two seasons ago. This time, in an effort to get everyone in the same room--a very '60s idea--he's boxed the audience and the stage in the same white walls. Only audience members who never attend intimate theater will notice. They're more likely to notice that the new plastic seating on wagons isn't suitable for a three hour performance. Most of the furniture for the show is onstage all the time which results in mass moving of stuff from time to time, the sort usually resorted to by high schools. The whole show is similarly a jumble of ideas stretching back to Buchner and Antoine, with obvious excursions into the Absurd and before. Think Artaud done cheap. Then listen to Beckett for real despair. Nobody does such a mix better than Bond, but why resurrect his sour nihilism, and show it to audiences who can afford to go to the A.R.T.? Maybe aging British socialism can still revel in despair, but there are recent plays from here or elsewhere in the world that might actually offer some insight in the current political situation.

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