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Theatre Journal 53.3 (2001) 491-493
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In the Penal Colony
In the Penal Colony. By Philip Glass. Libretto by Rudolph Wurlitzer. Court Theatre, Chicago. 24 November 2000.
In this age of writing the body, Kafka's dark fable of literal body inscription and elusive redemption strikes a chord. Make that several chords, since Philip Glass has created a chamber opera from Kafka's work, with a libretto by Rudolph Wurlitzer in a world premiere directed by JoAnne Akalaitis. In an attempt to bridge the gap between the opera house and the stage, Glass and Akalaitis worked on the production in collaboration with two repertory theatres, Chicago's Court Theatre and Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre.
In the story, a visitor has come to witness the penal colony's execution by a machine that inscribes the broken law on a prisoner's skin, slowly killing him. An officer lovingly tends and operates this machine, an invention of the colony's old commander. The officer fears that the new commander wishes to discard the machine and asks the visitor to praise the execution. When the visitor refuses, the officer takes the place of the condemned man and adjusts the harrow to inscribe "Be Just." The machine malfunctions, and, instead of slowly writing him to death, stabs him dead almost instantly.
All of this fraught material became even more heavily symbolic by adding the character of Kafka himself (Jose J. Gonzales) to the production. The stage floor was strewn with Kafka's writing, and photographs of the old commander littered the set. Every stage property, whether used in the action or not, held meaning. Upstage left stood the machine itself: scaffolding with a thin metal cot on a platform, a slab embedded with needles suspended above it and various huge gears above that, all in [End Page 491] [Begin Page 493] curtained shadow. Upstage right stood a platform where the costumed string quintet that accompanied the opera sat.
The piece opened with Kafka lying on a metal bed like that used in the machine, while speakers transmitted excerpts from his journals in which the theme of death by stabbing figured prominently. When the visitor (John Duykers) entered, Kafka sometimes mouthed his words or gestured with him. This effectively placed the events within Kafka's mind and added another character to the sparsely populated stage. The entrance of the condemned man (Steven Rishard) and a soldier (Alex Blatt) brought the only physicalized conflict, as the prisoner fought to free himself.
Throughout, Kafka functioned as both participant and observer, forcibly reminding me of "K" in The Trial, except that here Kafka was everyone. Kafka's presence freed Akalaitis from any obligation to realism. At times the actors all gestured together and everyone moved with choreographed precision, stylized angularity visible in every motion from the cringing of the prisoner to the visitor mopping his brow. The reflexivity of the piece reached its height when the characters all sat facing the string quintet and listened to the music as if at a concert. In a construction so manifestly anti-realistic, such metatheatrics sometimes palled. More effective was the deliberate diffusion of sympathy Kafka's presence created, giving both the visitor and the officer who tended the machine (Herbert Perry) equal credibility because Kafka visibly spoke through both.
The work, however, missed a few chances for effective theatricality, relying instead on static and heavily symbolic images like the writing on the floor. For example, the original story offered a scene where the soldier sliced off the condemned man's clothes; in the metaphor-heavy opera, the soldier simply took off the man's shirt and chains and puts them on Kafka's bed. Also, the machine, which matched its storied description, would have worked better unseen, represented theatrically by light and sound instead of by a clearly harmless stage construction.
In contrast to the overloaded set, the music was stripped down to its essentials, working through repetition. The string quintet played through a cycle of consonant and dissonant modulations that expressed mood better than words. The repetition in the...