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Theatre in Review: In the Penal Colony (Next Door @ NYTW)

Jamar Brathwaite. Photo Erica B. Sneider.

In the Penal Colony is a kind of theatrical botany experiment, grafting a set of thoroughly contemporary concerns onto a classic short story by Franz Kafka. It's an interesting attempt that results in a curio rather than a striking, strand-alone work. Kafka's text, an account of torture and authoritarianism in a nameless, largely undescribed state, is an icepick inserted into one's spine. The characters are largely anonymous: The Traveler has been sent by The Commandant to witness the execution of The Condemned at the hands of The Officer, aided by The Soldier. The Condemned will be dispatched by the apparatus, a fiendish and highly original killing machine. In her adaptation, Miranda Haymon has taken disturbing, if abstractly rendered, material and reshaped it as a meditation on the treatment of black men in the Black Lives Matter era. It's a counterintuitive crossbreed, and while Haymon, who also directed, and her cast provide a number of gripping moments, the combined elements fight each other, resulting in something of a muddle.

The most awful, and memorable, element of the story is Kafka's frighteningly dispassionate account of the apparatus, which uses an elaborate arrangement of needles to imprint into the flesh of the convicted the details of the law that he has broken. (I use the term "convicted" advisedly; as The Officer notes, he is judge, jury, and executioner, rolled into one: "The basic principle I use for my decisions is this: Guilt is always beyond a doubt.") The meticulous and detailed description -- especially the way it sweeps away the victim's excess blood, allowing the grid of needles to complete its lethal work-- is a terrifyingly exact metaphor for oppression as practiced by the state. Reading it, one is surprised that In the Penal Colony didn't get more theatrical traction during the second Bush administration, when the horrors of "enhanced interrogation" were the stuff of daily front-page news. For the record, two short films were made of it, in 2006 and 2009, and Palestinian and Egyptian theatre companies have tackled it, in 2011 and 2012. There are other, earlier versions, too. In its lack of specifics, it is adaptable to many fraught political situations.

And yet it resists Haymon's efforts to apply it to the racism embedded in American life. It's symptomatic of this piece's oddly divided character that the three-member cast delivers the passage explicating the apparatus while performing a series of physical exercises -- rhythmically clapping, stepping, and taking part in dance moves. (In one especially discomfiting moment, they stand stock still, their arms raised, as if stopped by the police; it is, arguably, the most arresting moment in the show.) All three performers -- Jamar Brathwaite, David Glover, and Dhari Noel -- are gifted with strong presences and remarkable stamina, but, as directed, they effectively render the words unintelligible, removing the passage that makes In the Penal Colony an unforgettable reading experience.

It seems especially strange that, in a theatre piece designed to raise one's consciousness and prick one's conscience, Haymon has chosen to neutralize her source material in this way. Instead of finding a theatrical way of expressing the apparatus' horrific functioning -- which, to be sure, would be a tall order -- she uses it as a platform for portraying the many ways in which black male bodies are exploited and commodified in contemporary culture. Glover, who plays The Condemned, is made to stand against the upstage wall, where. in place of being mutilated, he executes shuffling dance moves and boxing steps, and mimes shooting hoops; at a certain point, The Officer pours a bottle of liquid into his mouth, forcing him to take all of it in a single gulp -- a gesture more likely to put one in mind of Abu Ghraib than the mean streets of America. It's an arresting gesture the first time out; the third time, it seems like a stunt.

Haymon preserves the story's main twist, in which The Condemned is swapped out for another of the characters, but by editing the text she weakens its taut, shifting power dynamics, and the actors, given stilted dialogue and no characters, come off as false. (If you haven't the story, you may be baffled by what you're seeing.) The choreographed sequences, which are largely wordless, make Haymon's point so strongly that one wonders if she needed Kafka's participation at all.

The production benefits from clean, uncluttered design lines. Emmie Finckel's set, which places the audience on two sides of a starkly empty stage backed by a pegboard wall and towers of loudspeakers, and Cha See's stark lighting -- which includes uplighting effects in the audience seating areas and color-changing floor illumination - provide an appropriately forbidding environment. The sound designer, Valentine Monfeuga, provides a stunning finale collage of effects that includes sirens, Hillary Clinton's infamous speech about "superpredators," and the current president's even more scalding address to the black community, in which he asked, "What the hell do you have to lose?"

The questions Haymon raises are vitally important ones, but this may not be the right format for them, especially as they have been explored recently, to greater or lesser degree, in a number of plays, including Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, Pipeline, Pass Over, Fairview, White Noise, Slave Play, and "Daddy" -- all of which make their points more strongly and/or with greater originality. The awkwardness of Haymon's choice boils down to a single point, I think: Kafka imagined a machine in which written laws tear into a person's flesh. Her version of In the Penal Colony doesn't offer anything nearly as terrifying as that. --David Barbour

(19 July 2019)

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