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In the Penal Colony

A thrilling adaptation of Kafka’s eerie short story of oppressive incarceration that features a dynamic African-American cast and striking staging.

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Dhari Noel and Jamar Brathwaite in a scene from “In the Penal Colony,” adapted from the story by Franz Kafka (Photo credit: Lex Spirtes)


Darryl Reilly, Critic

Franz Kafka’s themes of alienation and persecution loom over this thrilling performance piece treatment of his short story In the Penal Colony. It’s a jolting blend of dance, movement and physical theater dynamically performed by an African-American cast.

Director Miranda Haymon’s electric staging of her pared down yet faithful adaptation is filled with dialogue characteristic of Kafka and bracing sequences. Basketball is a key visual metaphor as the performers mime shooting hoops, run in place, do pushups and vigorously glide from bit to bit. Ms. Haymon’s commanding technique is combined with technical production achievements. Zack Lobel’s intense lighting design and sound designers Anthony Dean and Matthew Catron’s blaring whistles and pulsing renditions of electronic music all yield to an entrancing presentation. This plays out on scenic designer Tekla Monson’s stark bare black-accented set that is backed by a mirror.

Set in an unnamed prison, Kafka’s work was published in 1919 and concerns a condemned man whose crime is unknown and is facing execution by a brutal machine. It’s represented here by a laptop wheeled out on a high cart that controls the music that’s used for torture. The forced drinking of Gatorade is also part of the sadism on display.

“Chain Gang,” the Sam Cooke song, is the atmospheric opening that’s raucously performed by a trio of men wearing black jumpsuits and white sneakers. They are Jamar Brathwaite, David Glover and Dhari Noel.

David Glover in a scene from “In the Penal Colony,” adapted from the story by Franz Kafka (Photo credit: Lex Spirtes)

As the executioner, Mr. Brathwaite dominates the show with his piercing eyes, gleaming smile, physical force and sense of menace. Brathwaite’s manipulating the control board as the music becomes overwhelming is terrifying.

Mr. Glover’s doleful countenance as he furiously dances in one spot captures the essence of an anguished everyman crushed by authority. The jovial and thoughtful Mr. Noel is quite moving as the guard caught between empathy and duty.

Cause for confusion is the 60-minute running time stated in the program. After 30 minutes the three actors slowly take off their jumpsuits and are then in tank tops and gym shorts, there’s a brief tableau and they leave the stage. They come back for their bows as the show is surprisingly over.

Brilliantly realized, In the Penal Colony’s enigmatic tone is true to its source material and could be interpreted as a symbolic exploration of race in the United States.

In the Penal Colony (through September 17, 2018)

The Hodgepodge Group

The Tank, 312 West 36th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 800-838-3006 or visit

Running time: 30 minutes with no intermission

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1 Comment on In the Penal Colony

  1. Condemned:
    Amadou Diallo. Manuel Loggins Jr. Ronald Madison. Kendra James. Sean Bell. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Alton Sterling.

    Korey Wise, Yusuf Salaam,
    Antron McCray,
    Raymond Santana. …
    Kevin Richardson. …

    They are them.

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