Franz Kafka's "In the Penal Colony," a parable on suffering and self realization that centers on a man being sentenced to death, will come to life in a new opera theatre piece, written by renowned composer Philip Glass and directed by the avant-garde's JoAnne Akalaitis. The world premiere opens Aug. 31 at Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre, where it will run through Oct. 1. The show is a co-production with the Court Theatre in Chicago and will eventually come to New York's Classic Stage Company.
"In the Penal Colony" is set in an unnamed penal colony where a man has been sent to witness an execution by a fearsome machine of death. The colony's head officer can't imagine a world without his beloved killer, which he considers the "work of a lifetime." Glass and Akalaitis have expanded the piece ot include issues of obsession, transcendence, transfiguration and change.
In the Penal Colony was written by Glass and librettist Rudolph Wurlitzer as a theatre piece for two singers, three actors and a string quartet. Taking the singing roles are Glass' first choices, tenor John Duykers (Mao Tse Tung in Nixon in China, Der Linderghflug) as the penal colony's visitor and bass-baritone Herbert Perry (Glass' The White Raven) as the officer. Doubling as the officer is Perry's own twin brother, Eugene Perry (Glass' Orphee, John Guare's Four Baboons Adoring the Sun). The actors are Seattle's Jose Gonzales ( The Salvation of Iggy Scrooge) as Kafka, Steven M. Levine as the soldier and Matt Seidman as the condemned man. The Metropolitan String Ensemble of Seattle performs the score.
An icon of the minimalist school of composing, Glass first began writing for the Mabou Mines, which he co-founded. From that beginning, he created operas ( Einstein on the Beach, Hydrogen Jukebox) and film scores ("Kundun") and performs regularly as pianist with his Philip Glass Ensemble. His "Symphony No. 5," a treatment of spiritual traditions through the ages, opens the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival in October.
Also a co-founder of Mabou Mines, Akalaitis served as the company's co artistic director. Some of her well-known productions include Tis a Pity She's a Whore at Chicago's Goodman, Green Card at the Mark Taper Forum, In the Summer House for Lincoln Center Theatre, The Iphigenia Cycle and The Trojan Women, which have helped her win five Obie Awards, a Drama Desk Award, the NEA Award for Sustained Artistic Achievement and artistic directorship of the New York Shakespeare Festival. Pat Graney ( Tattoo) joins Akalaitis as choreographer. Obie winner Alan Johnson, who has conducted for Glass, as well as Polly Pen, Michael John LaChiusa and Adam Guettel, will conduct and musical direct.
In the Penal Colony's design team includes two New York designers, Obie-winning costumer Susan Hilferty ( Dirty Blonde) and lighting designer Jennifer Tipton ( James Joyce's The Dead, Wrong Mountain, The Designated Mourner). John Conklin created the sets with Dominic Kramers on sound.
Tickets are $42-$27. A Contemporary Theatre is located at Kreielsheimer Place. For tickets, call (206) 292-7676. A Contemporary Theatre is online at http://www.acttheatre.org.
-- By Christine Ehren