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.
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 http://www.thetanknyc.org
Running time: 30 minutes with no intermission