Photo by Ted Soqui

All the world may very well be a stage, but I might add that every stage is a prison — a solitary patch of floor where actors, like the inmates of any jail, are forced to square off against each other and show what they are made of. The cast of The Island, David Paladino and Kenneth Rosier, certainly show themselves to be so dedicated to this subtle political play and to proving themselves as actors that their performances take on a life-and-death intensity. Their work, currently on display at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, breathes new life into a piece that others might have treated too gingerly as a fragile history curio.

A collaborative effort devised in 1973 by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, The Island remains a staple at theater festivals but is seldom seen in Los Angeles, where it first showed up at the Mark Taper Forum 28 years ago. Its setting is South Africa's Robben Island prison, the Alcatraz of apartheid where black-nationalist inmates, including Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe, lived during the bleakest years of Afrikaner rule. John (Paladino) and Winston (Rosier) spend their days breaking rocks at the prison quarry and carrying out the Sisyphean tasks of an unseen, sadistic guard named Hodoshe, who has them engage in such rewarding activities as filling and dumping wheelbarrows of sand on the island's beach.

This is where we first meet the two, in a grueling and confusing pantomime of shovelwork and lifting — with a few beatings and strip searches thrown in for variety. Compared to this, the time spent by the men in their cramped cell is happy hour. And it is here, on the confined stage of their prison, momentarily removed from the gaze of their guards, that John and Winston bicker and banter, trade prison gossip and lick their day's wounds.

They also discuss and rehearse a scene from Antigone, which they plan to present at a prison assembly. Our eyebrows immediately arc at hearing this, partly because John and Winston, frankly, don't strike us as connoisseurs of classic literature, but also because we know how tempting it is to smuggle political messages into the hollowed-out stanzas of Greek plays. (Jean Anouilh wrote an Antigone during the German occupation, but more to the point, two prisoners did stage Antigone at Robben Island, which inspired this play.)

Fortunately, the prisoners' production — with the hulking Winston dressed as Antigone with padded “bra” and a mop wig — never becomes a clumsy gimmick, or a heavy-handed metaphor for life in South Africa. In fact, Fugard rarely touches on the realities of apartheid here, and now that time has washed his play of its political war paint, The Island has become a more universal fable of friendship. There are Godot-like moments as the men imagine and play-act scenes from mainland life, and even in this barren habitat, a war of one-upmanship continually rages.

The real conflict, though, comes late in the evening, when one of the men receives news about a parole — a denouement that could leave the other behind with a longer sentence. Suddenly one man's liberty becomes another's gall, echoing Eugene Debs' adage that no one is free as long as others remain in chains. If this sounds like a little too pat a lesson, it isn't. There's no question that The Island, like almost every prison play, projects a distorted view of life behind bars, one that, in this instance, is skewed to accent male companionship and a muted political agenda. But we never know what John and Winston are going to do, just as we can never take for granted the play's outcome.

Director John Parsonson stages this 80-minute one-act as a bare-bones affair: His actors are attired in simple, worn-out garments (John and Winston dream of the new khakis they'll receive upon release) and make do with old blankets and tin-can drinking cups. Such a production, besides being obviously economical, ensures that all our attention is focused on John and Winston. Denny Hankla and Gary Grossman's low-watt lighting plot, along with David Bartlett's jarring and crystalline sound design, smartly suggest environmental changes, but the play ultimately rests upon the shoulders of its actors. Paladino and Rosier create an entire universe of confined dreams as their characters nurse scabs and flick away insects while taking stock of the day's numbingly familiar events. “No one laughs forever” is Winston's embittered take on life.

Although both men sport athletic physiques (perhaps they are a little too chiseled for hard-labor prisoners), the shorter, bespectacled Paladino's John becomes identifiable as the “thinker” and joker of the two, while Rosier's brooding Winston is quicker to anger and altercation. Despite its brutal locale, the play has moments of almost unendurable tenderness, especially when, after a spat, one of the men turns over in his blanket and the other studies his back. What's so telling here about John and Winston's personal dynamic is that it never lapses into a George-and-Lenny paradigm. Instead, Paladino and Rosier's conversations seesaw in an emotional give-and-take between equals, their performances demonstrating the difference between drama and propaganda, between a portrait and a poster.

THE ISLAND | By ATHOL FUGARD, JOHN KANI and WINSTON NTSHONA Camelot Artists at the BEVERLY HILLS PLAYHOUSE, 254 S. Robertson Blvd. Through April 6

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