It’s an idea both radical and rational: Adapt the conceptual horror of Franz Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony” to present-day racist mass incarceration. That’s what Miranda Haymon‘s dramatization, now at New York Theatre Workshop Next Door, aims to do.
This muscular show, while riveting at times, abstracts the story so extremely that it loses touch with resonances it might have illuminated between the Kafka original and the modern setting. Instead, it relies too much on commercial rap songs and real-life audio news clips to drive its message home.
A long and athletic opening sequence gives us a heavily stylized depiction of life in a prison work camp. The three actors march, dance, sing, and chant, working hard and intensely to portray the timeless tedium of the condemned. A mix of music from different eras conveys the sense that injustice knows no geographic or temporal bounds, further emphasized by the recorded rap that comes later.
When the show enters verbal storytelling mode, we hear passages from the Kafka story, including a description of its slow-death execution machine. The nameless prisoners then resolve into three of Kafka’s characters.
The Officer maintains the killing apparatus and carries out the executions. The Condemned Man awaits his execution, though he has received no opportunity to defend himself in court. The Traveler is a dignitary from another country, invited to observe the killing.
However, the method of execution that we see is very different from the one described in the story and in the opening narration. It’s certainly harrowing enough in its own way. But it’s confusing that we’ve been told about Kafka’s needle-torture machine and now shown a prisoner being, essentially, exercised to death. Thus the show doesn’t feel fully committed to its own re-conception.
The actors’ powerful performances do give the show impact. The Officer (Jamar Braithwaite) defends his machine with startling passion amid the cold Kafka-esque bureaucracy, while the Traveler (Dhari Noel) coolly takes notes on an old-fashioned notepad. The mute Condemned (David Glover) endures his punishment with expressionless stoicism; never has so much tension swirled around bottles of sports drink.
Meanwhile music and sound make the execution apparatus all the more sinister as it sends the Condemned into frenzies of involuntary movement. (Its control box suggests a mid-20th-century analog synthesizer.)
Despite contradictory artistic impulses and trying pacing, the message of this In the Penal Colony is clear. For many of us the nightmare scenarios of Kafka, Orwell, and Serling are, in one form or another, not nightmares at all but realities – or just over the horizon. Produced by The Hodgepodge Group and Lucy Powis, the show runs through July 28, 2019 at New York Theatre Workshop Next Door; visit the website for schedule and tickets.