Machine Dreams


No one can accuse JoAnne Akalaitis of being afraid of the dark. As a director, she’s plunged into the abyss of the Greeks, Beckett, and Kroetz with the alacrity of Shelley Winters showing off her swimming prowess in The Poseidon Adventure. So it was no surprise to hear of her tackling, alongside longtime musical collaborator Philip Glass, Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony”—the harrowing story of an officer, a gentleman, and a sadistic death machine.

Written at the start of the First World War, the work envisions a method of capital punishment in which the condemned man’s sentence is engraved directly onto his flesh. The fanatical devotion of the bureaucratic executioner who tends to his murderous duties as though they were religious orders is contrasted with the visiting dignitary who questions the exercise of his conscience in a foreign land. (Not for nothing has the term Kafkaesque become synonymous with the zeitgeist of 20th-century Europe.)

In Glass and Akalaitis’s chamber opera version, Kafka (Jesse J. Perez) haunts his own spooky tale. As the belts and pistons of the torture contraption begin their ominous hum, the author’s hand mimics the action of the needles moving up and down on the convict’s strapped-down body. With this one gesture, Akalaitis offers a reading of the story as a parable of Kafka’s own artistic journey. To write, after all, is to subtly (and often not so subtly) pass judgment. The seduction of this kind of imperious “justice”—one unconstrained by due process—should give pause to every author whose work emanates in part from private grievance (see Kafka’s “Letter to His Father”). In opposition to this obsessive form of retribution, however, is the impartial and complex observation of the visitor—a man reluctant to impose himself on a strange world, yet unable to hold his tongue in the face of a crime.

In this elegantly staged adaptation, Kafka’s inner dialectic is externalized to reveal two diverging aesthetic paths. Though an elevated, yellow-hued simulacrum of the “bizarre apparatus” is impressionistically rendered by set designer John Conklin and lighting whiz Jennifer Tipton, nothing is literalized. Glass’s string quintet composition has a doleful dreaminess, with moments escalating into a paranoiac frenzy. The baritone Herbert Perry as the officer and tenor John Duykers as the visitor offer well-sung silhouettes as opposed to nuanced performances. (Eugene Perry and Tony Boutté alternate in the roles, respectively.) Part of the problem may be Rudolph Wurlitzer’s libretto, which effectively telescopes the action, yet supplies prosy exposition in place of harmonious lyrics.

In a nod to Beckett, Akalaitis transforms the condemned man and the officer into a mirror image of Pozzo and Lucky, complete with extra-long leash. While this choice may limit Kafka’s characters, it charges the occasion with the fearless sensibility of a director who recognizes the theatrical imperative of confronting the last century’s worst in its artistic best.

Two adventurous downtown companies, Reverie Productions and Theater of Necessity, have joined forces to present the American premiere of Ariane Mnouchkine’s adaptation of Klaus Mann’s novel Mephisto. The piece, translated by Timberlake Wertenbaker and directed by Rachel Kranz, tracks the rise of the Nazis through the vicissitudes of a group of Hamburg theater artists. Mnouchkine’s love of actors, both in their backstage preparations and onstage transformations, obviously proved irresistible to her historical imagination. Yet it’s the rocky vitality of the theatrical life that Kranz’s cast fails to capture. As ambitious an undertaking as this is, it merely whets the appetite for the real Mnouchkine thing. Can anyone out there convince her to return to New York? It’s not half as hellish as the worlds currently depicted on its stages.

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