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'Prison' does not let go

ART powerfully captures the life of a defeated man

CAMBRIDGE -- For those who first experienced the American Repertory Theatre's new Zero Arrow Theatre during the run of Pieter-Dirk Uys's open-hearted ''Foreign Aids," ''Olly's Prison" will seem like a different world.

The big black box has been cut down to 200 seats and is now a small fluorescent white box, the better to shine a glare on the working-class apartments where much of the action takes place.

And we do mean glare.

Little outside of the work of Neil LaBute and Sarah Kane prepares you for the harsh theatrical vision of England's Edward Bond.

Like ''Saved," his most famous work, ''Olly's Prison" is an often amazing piece of theater, thanks in large part to the talents of ART's artistic director Robert Woodruff, the awe-inducing actor Bill Camp, and a terrific cast.

''Saved," which Woodruff directed in New York in 2001, became a cause celebre in 1965 because it depicts a baby being stoned to death by young, working-class toughs. We won't spell out the nastiness at the end of the half-hour monologue that opens ''Olly's Prison," but said nastiness does send Camp's character, Mike, to prison.

Or perhaps we should say, to a place that society has designated as a prison, because Bond tries to make the case that Mike's life before and after going to jail is not that different.

In the monologue, as fine a piece of acting as you're likely to see, he grows increasingly desperate about his inability to make some kind of contact with his teenage daughter, Sheila.

Clomping around the apartment, pleading with his daughter to drink her tea, complaining about the bills, he garners both sympathy and scorn. In making inarticulateness the stuff of poetry, Camp gets to the heart of what it means to be a defeated person.

All he wants, at first, is domestic tranquility, but in Bond's view, that can be a form of imprisonment, too. The character's attempt to provide a happy home for his daughter is oppressive to her. Similarly, even once he leaves prison he feels suffocated by the inane homemaking fussiness of Vera, the woman who loves him.

As Vera, Angela Reed is heartbreaking as she tries to find peace and love with a man who can't seem to handle either. Thomas Derrah is pitch perfect as a prison sage (relatively speaking), and Karen MacDonald is her usual sublime self as the mother of a young man who hangs himself with a rope that Mike meant for himself. David Wilson Barnes is rivetingly creepy as Sheila's boyfriend, Frank.

Bond's writing about theater is quite polemical, as you can see from the e-mails posted to Woodruff on the walls of the Zero Arrow lobby. Thankfully, his theatrics are much less predictable, and despite the trappings of working-class drama, he keeps an audience very much on its toes.

It comes, then, as a letdown when the final scenes begin hammering home Bond's politics. Shock gives way to anti-authoritarian symbolism that is obvious and clumsy.

Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine that Bond could find much better champions than Camp, Woodruff, and set designer David Zinn. You can almost feel the walls of the flat closing in on Camp, and the first-act violence is magnificently staged.

The second-act rampage is another matter. The fight that erupts toward the end of the play goes on way too long. Worse, it seems inspired by Bond's worldview rather than by the flow of the play, particularly since it involves the least interesting characters onstage.

Still, Bond and Woodruff together are a force, and when you add the actors and design team, you have theater that cries out to be seen. ''Olly's Prison" is not for the faint of heart, and it definitely is not for those who don't subscribe to the ART vision of theater.

For the rest of you, don't miss it.

Ed Siegel can be reached at siegel@globe.com.

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