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Christopher Fry's A Sleep of Prisoners is not really a play, nor even a dramatic poem. It may perhaps best be described as a confusing verbal exercise in philosophy. The English playwright apparently set out to describe the state of mankind in a world at war, with man represented by four prisoners locked up in an unused church. Instead of presenting his ideas--which say pretty much that "no man is an island"--through a conventional plot, Fry approaches his theme through the dreams of the captives. Each of the dreams is based on a Biblical story, but despite their common basis they never seem to merge into a coherent whole.
If the play is confusing, the Canterbury Players are not to blame. Director David Green skillfully uses the choir and pulpit of Christ Church as a set, and the production at times generates a good deal of excitement. His emphasis on movement, however, seems a bit too great, because in a few spots he makes the actors speak so fast that Fry's lines are hard to understand.
The actors themselves have a hard assignment, since the structure of the play prevents them from giving any sort of recognizable character study. Robert Jordan, as Private Peter Able, gives the best performance of the evening. His reading is extraordinarily clear, and even some of the foggier lines seemed to mean something when he speaks them. In the part of Private David King, Michael Harwood is just noisy and energetic enough to keep things alive. Earle Edgerton encumbers his characterization of the aging Private Tim Meadows with an unconvincing Cockney accent, but his performance improves when he drops it near the end of the play. The generally impressive cast is rounded out by James Rieger.
The direction, the acting, and Donald Adam's imaginative lighting prove that the Canterbury Players have enough talent to mount a highly satisfactory production. Even their choice of A Sleep of Prisoners may please those who like literary puzzles. They will find the play well worth an hour and a half of their time.
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