Last night I had the strangest feeling that I was back in college again. No, it wasn't a nightmare (well, at least not a sleep induced one). I just had the strangest feeling of déjà vu, where conversations and debates from over a decade ago were occurring all over again. Surely you remember your college years (and if you have yet to experience them, here's a foretaste of the feast to come) during which you would stay up until the wee hours of the morning, arguing about this writer, that director, the odd composer, etc. These were intellectual exercises at their purest, and every field of study had its champions. The English and Philosophy majors would overlap and debate Kafka, Nietsche and Sartre. The Theatre majors would also lay claim to Sartre, tossing in Genet and Artaud for good measure. And the music majors? The majority I hung around with extolled the virtues of Glass ... Philip Glass to be exact.
May I state at this moment that I loathed those arguments that tried to reduce art to science? Queries like "If Moses had not carried down the ten commandments, would Sartre have written No Exit?" or arguments about the semantics of theatre (which made the whole Bill Clinton "is" corundum look like a children's book of verses) left me totally cold. To me, art is a live, visceral, emotional creation that hits primarily the heart or lower. When it reaches the brain, it is through a roundabout manner, but it is not its prime course. Bloodless, intellectual theater far too often reeks, well, of masturbatory exercises designed primarily to thrill the individuals producing it.
So it was with no little trepidation that I went to see In the Penal Colony at A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle; a work commissioned by ACT which sets a short story by Franz Kafka to music by Philip Glass, a libretto by Rudolph Wurlitzer, and is directed by JoAnne Akalaitis. My feelings towards Glass' music are decidedly mixed. When he sets his works to actual stories or texts, I find them to be stirring and hauntingly beautiful, such as his opera about Ghandi, Satyagraha. I love the perfect fusion created by his music and the images of life out of balance in the film Koyaanisqatsi. But far too often the lack of coherent lyrics and interminable repetitions drive me absolutely crazy, as with his 'classic' opera, Einstein on the Beach (which a friend of mine in college perfectly described as sounding like "pixies in a blender.") As for Akalaitis, I recall too well the tribulations both Trinity Rep in Providence and New York Public Theater faced when she took over as Artistic Director of each, during which time her avant-garde style resulted in the alienation of far too many subscribers. A quote in a recent interview with ACT, in which she mentioned "I actually don't know what (the show) is about. I never know what anything is about. That's how I work. I don't do what I really understand," did little to assuage my fears. Given the various elements involved, In the Penal Colony could either be an incredible lightening-in-a-bottle theatrical experience, or it could be the most pretentious sort of evening possible.
Unfortunately, it leans decidedly towards the latter. In the Penal Colony is a show about words, but ironically its words have little to no meaning, passion, or emotion attached. Fragments of Kafka's journals are painted on the brilliant set by John Conklin and uttered by local actor, Jose Gonzales, who plays Kafka. The concept seems to be that Kafka is dreaming or imagining the events, or more importantly the words of the opera, and that he is filtering and capturing them into a story. For a while, this conceit seems to work. The fragments of Kafka's journals at first have ties to the events of the show and give a glimpse of what may have been its process of creation. But all too soon it degenerates into typical avant-garde pretension, where the words have no ties to the events (typical asides are "March 2nd, Richard the third, impotence"), and gestures/actions have no grounding in meaning or reality (descending even to the usual and overused "let's distance the audience by getting them wet" route). Interestingly enough, neither the character of Kafka nor the journal asides he utters are in the libretto provided by the theater. This perhaps accounts for the feeling that the character is tacked on and has no organic reason to exist.
The chief problem I have with the show is that it is all intellect and no soul. There are no emotions or passions in this Penal Colony: it has no dynamics nor levels, and no connection at all exists with the events that are occurring. Which is odd, since story-wise, In the Penal Colony has great potential for passion and high stakes drama. The plot involves a visitor who comes to a nameless island and is invited to witness an execution performed by a sinister machine created by the late commander. The colony's leading officer is wedded to the machine and the memory of the late commander, and fights to keep it in service. It's a story about inhumanity, the dangers of being stuck in the past, blind obsession, and self-sacrifice; all prime and primal material. But in Glass/Wurlitzer/Akalaitis' hands, this is a lifeless mess, where even the description of the tortures inflicted by the machine are delivered in the deadpan manner of a flight attendant's safety lecture. ('in the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, sharp knives will descend from the ceiling and carve words into your flesh.').
Philip Glass' music is in his earlier 'minimalistic' oeuvre, (imagine the first ten seconds of Titanic's overture repeated for 90 minutes). The closest thing approaching a melody in the show was a cell phone that went off next to me. His music is admirably performed by The Metropolitan String Ensemble of Seattle and sung by Herbert Perry (alternating with his brother, Eugene, in the part of The Officer) and John Duykers (The Visitor). The sets by John Conklin and lights by Jennifer Tipton are incredible and manage to create a believably menacing machine.
While I am thrilled that ACT is taking chances and is commissioning new works, why they chose this one is a puzzlement. It's an uninteresting muddle that recalls those late night intellectual arguments in college, where one dealt with the mental minutia of a topic, all the while glorying in how smart or perceptive one was, rather than fully appreciating or enveloping the subject with the full spectrum of emotion or experience.
In the Penal Colony runs through October 1st at ACT in Seattle before transferring to the Court Theatre of Chicago (November 1 - December 10). For more information, visit ACT's website: www.acttheatre.org.