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Watching The Island, the breathtakingly spare, deceptively simple absurdist drama about two black South Africans imprisoned on Robben Island, is, at first, a bit like boarding a time machine. But the evening leaps ahead with such a vengeance in its final moments at the Eisenhower Theater that it ends up feeling as up-to-the-minute as a CNN bulletin—and considerably more probing.

If you were lucky enough to catch John Kani and Winston Ntshona the last time they were performing The Island in Washington (at Arena Stage in 1975), you’ll note the effects of gravity and time on their bodies. Both men have thickened. Their muscles sag. Their skin looks leathery where once it gleamed with sweat.

The opening moments find them miming the shoveling of rocks into wheelbarrows and the dumping of those barrows at each other’s feet. The work, devised by a sadistic jailer to humiliate and frustrate them, is as exhausting as it is pointless. The men grunt and perspire, heave and groan, lift and shove, then repeat the cycle again and again for perhaps 10 minutes. Ionesco never wrote a more perfect absurdist scene. And it is followed by dialogue that matches it in every respect—the frustrating back-and-forth of two men locked in a circular relationship, each providing the other with comfort and with pain.

But if The Island’s style is similar to that of absurdist works by Beckett and Pinter, it isn’t really fiction. The Island was created by Kani and Ntshona in conjunction with Athol Fugard as a sort of quasi-documentary about prison life for black South African audiences in 1973. The staging device that gives the evening form, and that allows it to leap into the present, is the men’s intention to perform an abbreviated Antigone during a prison talent show, knowing that its plot, about defying authority, will resonate with prisoners while going right over the heads of the guards.

That message didn’t go over the heads of South African authorities in 1973, of course. But when they tried to confiscate the script of The Island, they discovered that there was nothing written for them to ban. The play was in the heads of the performers…and still is.

In a sense, it’s also in our heads—ingrained there because the devices Fugard used in his original direction (which is mostly replicated in the Market Theatre of Johannesburg’s production) became common in the staging of plays thereafter. Especially in the staging of absurdist plays where what was being communicated was man’s inability to communicate. The performance takes place on and around a simple raised platform that’s about the size of a jail cell. A few props—blankets, a rope, a bucket, an improvised wig—are employed in the retelling of the Antigone legend, but for the most part, it’s just two men. The rest is language: repetitive, simple, eloquent, and stubborn.

Apartheid is now dead, at least in name, along with the regime that practiced it. But if you’re laboring under the illusion that the world has changed much in the past three decades, the evening’s final moments are likely to catch you up short. The Afrikaaners were, after all, imprisoning folks with dark skin for wanting to bring down their social system, and that gives a certain resonance to, say, King Creon’s lament in Antigone about “attacks at our borders from terrorists.”

Kani and Ntshona don’t lean on any of this; they don’t have to. You will never see truer, more powerful performances. Never.

The Elsinore conjured by set designer Peter England for the Shakespeare Theatre’s Hamlet is a modernist Stonehenge that somehow suggests that Norse gods have been playing dominoes on a heroic scale.

Giant metal slabs, not unlike the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, stand at the rear of the stage in a collapsing half-circle. Those on the right have flattened one another and are rusting away, while the still-erect slabs on the left testify—their finishes dulled by water and cold—to the rot in the House of Denmark.

As the lights snap off, accompanied by an ear-splitting clap of thunder, it begins to rain, and the world’s most famous ghost story gets under way with the spectral appearance of an assassinated king. It is, indeed, a dark and stormy night….

OK, Gale Edwards’ staging isn’t going for subtle. But there’s something to be said for clarity and getting back to basics when dealing with a time-honored classic. Hers is not a modernist Hamlet, but an old-school, romantic crowd-pleaser of the sort that Eugene O’Neill’s dad might have starred in, between tours in The Count of Monte Cristo. Its Claudius (Ted Van Griethuysen), shaved of head and smiling unctuously, is a smooth-talking Hieronymous Bosch devil; its Polonius (David Sabin) is a walking windbag joke; and its Gertrude (Sybil Lines) favors gowns and bed linens of deepest scarlet, as if adultery came in just one shade.

The play’s most celebrated scenes are reliably satisfying in the way big production numbers are in a musical revival. For the “mousetrap” sequence, the Players perform before heavy velvet curtains and indulge in a bit of preliminary juggling. The comic gravedigger (Floyd King) who unearths Yorick’s skull is such a cutup, he pours a bucket of water over his assistant’s head. And the duel? Pure Errol Flynn, complete with gasp-inducing thrusts and precipitous slip-sliding parries. If the actors manage to make it through the run without killing each other, they can hire out as fencing instructors.

The effect of so much directness is to make the evening’s motivations and plot developments crystal-clear—which may be grand for anyone who comes to the play fresh but is just a tad less rewarding for those of us with a dozen or more Hamlets cluttering up our memories. Apart from the occasional striking visual—a crimson, 30-foot-high canopy dropping from the heavens to surround Gertrude’s bed, for instance—there aren’t many surprises to be found in the Lansburgh Theatre’s Elsinore.

But there is one: The play’s most famous soliloquy has been moved from the first scene in Act III, when Hamlet is still deciding what course of action to take, to the top of Act V, when he’s on a boat to England, and “To be or not to be” becomes a meditation on mortality by a man who’s just read his own death sentence. The speech functions in this new location in much the way a showstopper for a musical’s star does in the “11 o’clock spot,” just before the final curtain.

Still, even when speeches pop up in odd places, and the acting verges on overripe, and the sound effects deafen, you have to concede that the play’s textbook values are being given their full due.

Wallace Acton’s Melancholy Dane arrives quietly, his blond mop and angelic face perched atop a tailored, calf-length, velvet coat that makes him seem as much Petit Prince as Prince of Denmark. But in no time, he’s soliloquizing at full throttle, hurling himself to the ground in despair, howling in rage, and feigning madness persuasively enough to guarantee himself a room at the local asylum. He’s also confiding in the audience in more moderate tones, on occasion, though never for long.

Acton, always an intelligent actor, is just the guy to make sense of the evening’s overstated showiness. His enunciation is deliciously precise, his performance an exercise in wounded eloquence on a heroic scale.

Does he “o’erstep the modesty of nature?” Sure. But in this production, he pretty much has to, if he wants to be noticed at all. CP