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|A CurtainUp Review
In the Penal Colony
by Les Gutman
A "harrow" is a farm implement with spike-like teeth, used to level soil. In medieval times, a similar device was used as an implement of torture. In Franz Kafka's story, set on a penal colony off the African coast in 1907-- "harrowing" is as good a word as any to describe it -- the harrow has become a complex piece of industrial-age machinery, created by the old commander to mete out his interpretation of justice: for twelve hours, a condemned man -- not told his fate and never permitted to defend himself (because "guilt is always beyond doubt") -- is strapped into the contraption. First, for six hours, an inscription setting forth the "lesson" to be learned from the crime is tattooed into the man's torso. After this "enlightenment," he descends to his death.
A Visitor (John Duykers, alternating with Tony Boutté) comes to the colony at the request of the new commander who is concerned about this form of justice, to observe the execution of a man (Steven Rishard) charged with insubordination. The Officer in charge of the execution (Herbert Perry, alternating with his twin brother, Eugene), vigilantly devoted to the philosophy of his old commander, describes the procedure, and implores the visitor to urge its continuation. He resists. When a strap breaks off the apparatus, the condemned man is let free, and the Officer ends up sacrificing himself to the machine, and the cause.
Kafka's tale is, famously, both short in length and long in the range of the issues it raises. Director JoAnne Akalaitis, collaborating with her former Mabou Mines colleague (and former husband), Philip Glass, and his librettist, Rudolph Wurlitzer, infuses Kafka's story with a new character, the author himself (Jesse Perez, memorable earlier this season in Up Against the Wind). It's a stunning exercise, bringing Kafka's own complex mind directly into the equation, drawn from his journals and other writings, and played out by Perez as both a participant in and witness to what unfolds. For much of the play, the cast engages in highly stylized gesture in an almost robotic unison.
One can contemplate to no end the meaning of In the Penal Colony. Akalaitis notes in the program that her first impression upon reading it was that it was unstagable. "And yet," she says, "I was drawn to it as a kind of metaphor for my life in the theater, directing work that I firmly believe I don't understand and can't direct." Whatever her qualms, what she presents is a compelling work, in which Wurlitzer's straightforward libretto coalesces intriguingly with Glass's music, heightened emotion that often belies the limitations in his style. For those who think of Ms. Akalaitis as a great deconstructor, Penal Colony's directness may come as something of a surprise. Glass's "pocket opera" -- his term -- possesses a haunting quality on a plane not contemplated by its source.
Some will also no doubt suggest the currency of this opening almost contemporaneous with the execution of Timothy McVeigh. Yet the work is far broader than an consideration of the morality of capital punishment, almost trivializing it in its rush of moral and ethical dilemmas.
In the Penal Colony is written for two singers (the Officer and the Visitor), and three other actors: portraying Kafka, the condemned man and a soldier (Sterling Brown), the latter two of whom speak no words, even though they are featured powerfully in the action. There is also a string quintet onstage, sometimes bringing to mind musicians playing in Nazi death camps. Duykers and Perry sing their often monotonous dialogue in stark contrast -- Duyker's anguished tenor against the resolute conviction of Perry's bass-baritone. Glass has employed similarly the more textured sounds of his strings -- plaintive violins, a searching cello as well as the combustibly baleful force of the ensemble.
Josh Conklin's set, immeasurably punctuated by Jennifer Tipton's lighting, creates its own intellectual vigor: it's floor covered in Kafka's scrawls -- Akalaitis has Kafka writing manicly as well as emoting throughout much of the show; a portrait of the old commander looming in the background -- at one point Akalaitis has Kafka grasp it and parade around the stage showing it to the audience; but most emphatically, insisting that the machine itself, huge and offensive, sheathed in a sickly resinous yellow that will later take on other unsuppressible hues, remains the focus of our attention.
This is a difficult but rewarding piece that infiltrates the psyche. It is not easily disengaged.