Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Kafka Under Glass

In the Penal Colony at Long Beach Opera.


Long Beach Opera, Long Beach

In the Penal Colony (In der Strafkolonie), a short story by Franz Kafka written in 1914 and first published in 1919, is a horrific, complex tale. This lurid exercise, in its operatic manifestation, formed the basis for a collaboration between Long Beach Opera and California Repertory Company, presented for a run from April 25 through May 5, at California State University's Studio Theater.

Long Beach Opera's contribution to the partnership was a presentation of the eponymous Philip Glass work, one the composer referred to as a "chamber opera," for two singers and string quintet, to a libretto by Rudolph Wurlitzer. Cal Rep added eight actors, members of the Rising Scholars Program (a community group for students who have been incarcerated or have family members who have been), who spoke excerpts from interviews with some of the members; quotes were assembled and shaped by playwright Juliette Carrillo. The company's director, Jeff Janisheski, staged this production.

Those quotes, and some daunting facts and statistics printed in the program and flashed on the supertitles screen prior to the production, served to illustrate a huge and powerful prison system, an inhuman operation that features unacceptable treatment of its inmates.

Glass' little opera (it runs about 85 minutes without intermission) and the contemporary associations engendered by Cal Rep don't really fit together. The eight actors participate in the telling of the opera's tale, but also speak about their personal experiences within today's prison system over Glass' instrumental interludes. Juxtaposed, the two elements somehow combine for a gripping musical theater experience, one that maintains a consistent level of tension and drama from start to finish.

Kafka's story takes place on a prison island. A foreign Visitor arrives, and is briefed by an Officer on the operation of a diabolical machine. The "apparatus," as he calls it, subjects its victims to literally harrowing torture; it features needles like a harrow, which slow inscribe the victim's crime and sentence into his skin. The entire process is supposed to take twelve hours, with the intended result being the prisoner feeling a sense of redemption and release during the slow torture and eventual death.

Image result for franz kafka
Franz Kafka.
To make a short story long, this method of punishment was devised by the former commandant of the prison, and most of the opera is taken up with the Officer's defense of and justification for the method, his idolization of the former commandant, and his fear that the new one does not share his enthusiasm. The Visitor is by turns intrigued, befuddled, and then defiant, as he refuses to endorse this method of punishment to the new commandant as the officer desires. When the Officer sees his cause is hopeless, he frees a prisoner and climbs into the machine himself, hoping to experience the promised redemption and release. The machine malfunctions and kills him quickly, and in this production somewhat gruesomely.

There's a lot more to Kafka's tale than this simple narrative. It turns out that everything the Officer says and believes is a lie; the former commandant was not a visionary genius, the machine does not function perfectly, the prisoners do not feel a sense of redemption while, or after, being tortured to death, etc. On the former commandant's tombstone is inscribed an allusion to his resurrection, so there are religious connotations. Issues of morality and justice are raised without being exactly resolved. The Visitor is defiant, but not from any high-minded courageous stand; he just doesn't want to get involved, and doesn't feel qualified to express an opinion. It's complicated.

Zeffin Quinn Hollis (l.) and Doug Jones (r.).
Anyway, as they say, how did I like the show? As usual with Long Beach Opera, the singers were exemplary. Tenor Doug Jones and baritone Zeffin Quinn Hollis are both veterans with the company. Jones' Visitor projected a sort of stubborn integrity, and was resolute, intelligent, and somewhat conflicted. Hollis, as the Officer, began with a smarmy sense of his own importance, but gradually displayed the vulnerability of his tortured soul. Both possess fine voices, sang impressively, and gave compelling performances. Morgan Pimental was a silent, stolid presence as the Guard. The eight actors spoke their lines clearly and with heartfelt sincerity, and a couple of them took turns portraying the apparatus' poor victim.

As a group, they also took the role of the apparatus itself, simulating the thing by surrounding a gurney and extending their fingers, claw-like. It was effective, if sometimes awkward, as was the rest of Janisheski's staging. Danila Korogodsky's set was a glass enclosure, that took up half the stage, leaving little room for Hollis and Jones to do much but move back and forth. Ladders on each side of the enclosure, although mentioned in the tale, served no clear function here.

Vee Delgado's costumes and Martha Carter's lighting were stark and simple. When Hollis had to enter the enclosure and sing from there, there was no change in sound quality, which I assume is to the credit of Bob Christian's sound design. Andreas Mitisek, LBO's artistic and managing director, conducted.

Philip Glass.
This is not one of Glass' best works. His musical language is familiar by now: the usual combination of repetitive busyness and the occasional serene, calm moment, over which the singers declaim, recitative-like. The Officer has some extended monologues, and one longs for a tune, or at least a little variety. To quote Abraham Lincoln, people who like this sort of thing will find that it's the sort of thing they like.

Long Beach Opera is known for offbeat, provocative productions of both unusual and standard works. (This is also the sixth work by Glass they have presented.) California Repertory Company, in residence at CSULB, is known for theater that explores themes in a socially significant way.

Both companies are risk-takers. Together, they joined forces to present Kafka's grim tale while drawing attention to a burning contemporary issue, and the risk paid off; the entire run quickly sold out.


"In the Penal Colony," Long Beach Opera and California Repertory  Company, California State University, Long Beach Studio Theater, April 25 through May 5, 2019.
Images: Production Photos, Keith Ian Polokoff; Franz Kafka,; Philip Glass, artist website.

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