Franz Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony”—first published exactly 100 years ago—is, like other of Kafka’s works, surreal and full of casual savagery. The story is like a nightmare that sticks with you into the following day. Set in an isolated island prison, it tells of a bizarre, drawn-out execution procedure in which a condemned man is to have his sentence engraved repeatedly on his body by a many-needled machine. A traveler from another country has been invited to witness the bloody spectacle, which understandably troubles him. In a shocking reversal, the officer serving as executioner—challenged by this visitor—places himself on the machine, which goes out of control with mutilative violence.
Playwright and director Miranda Haymon has, like numerous dramatists before her, dramatized this story—except that she has significantly repurposed it. Working with three African-American actors, she has used the tale as a taking-off point for an hour-long play focused on the experience of young black men in America. As the press release puts it, “In the Penal Colony investigates the performance of power, patriarchy and punishment. Three black men convene in an unnamed penal colony, asking what it means for them to exist in the media, when observed, when consumed, when punished.”
The script for the show is brief—a mere eight pages. But Haymon and her players augment it with a great many embellishments. There are long stretches in which no text is spoken at all. Sound designer Valentine Monfeuga fills some of these wordless spaces with a haunting soundscape, which includes hip-hop music as well as faint, disturbing, vaguely electronic droning sounds. At one point an actor throws an empty plastic bottle on the stage and the noise it makes when landing blends into the sound of a drum roll from the sound system.
Most memorable, though, is the large amount of physical movement in the play. The three actors begin the show with a long prologue that finds them marching onto the stage like soldiers, dressed in prison jumpsuits. They perform choreographed movements depicting familiar actions associated with young African-American men: strenuous and repetitious physical labor, dribbling on a basketball court, boxing, dancing. The energy is high, and the pace is often frantic.
After this long opening, the three performers assume roles from the Kafka story. Jamar Brathwaite is the Officer, David Glover the Condemned, and Dhari Noel the Traveler. The three chant an excerpt of text from Kafka’s story, describing the execution machine, though this will not mean much to those unfamiliar with the original story. As the action proceeds, we see a very stylized version of the execution scenes. Rather than being placed into anything like Kafka’s engraving machine, the Condemned stands on a small platform, The Officer, who sets the procedure in motion using an electronic control board, causes the Condemned to ritualistically consume bright aquamarine bottles of a sports drink. Something about it suggests a lethal injection. Through it all, the Traveler takes notes. The action is somewhat different from that in the original story, but it certainly has the contours of a nightmare.
It’s debatable whether Haymon really even needed the frame of Kafka’s story on which to hang her ideas. It’s a somewhat uneasy matchup. Kafka’s work, like Haymon’s, certainly deals with power and punishment and a failure of the justice system. However, the story has a very European sensibility, whereas the concerns of the play are specifically American, rooted in the blood-soaked soil of slavery. Sometimes Haymon seems to abandon Kafka altogether. For instance, the final scenes from the original story, about the Condemned’s attempt to escape from the island, are dropped. Instead, we get an audio collage of comments about black men (including words from both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump).
Haymon’s scenario is rousing and intense, and the sense of its participants’ commitment to the material is palpable. Emmie Finckel’s set design is simple and unobtrusive. The work of lighting designer Cha See, though—like that of sound designer Monfeuga—is striking. At one point a strip of eerie colored light rings the playing area, complementing the fluorescent-like quality of the seemingly omnipresent Gatorade bottles.
As for the cast, the somber-eyed Glover is probably the standout. However, all three actors give performances that are earnest as well as energetic. It’s a commendable ensemble effort.
In the Penal Colony (through July 28, 2019)
The Hodgepodge Group and Lucy Powis
New York Theatre Workshop’s Fourth Street Theatre, 79 East 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-460-5475 or visit http://www.nytw.org
Running time: 60 minutes without an intermission