Franz Kafka and Philip Glass are a match made in heaven. They both experiment with form within the boundaries of classic genres, displacing the audience just slightly to the left or right of where their bodies are. This removal creates an uncanniness that allows for a reorientation of sensibilities. Glass does so with variations and repetition; Kafka creates realities adjacent to our own, alien yet unsettlingly familiar like having déjà vu during television static.
“In The Penal Colony” strikes close to many contemporary conversations. Murmurs of cultural colonialism cluster between the lines. Of the two primary characters, one is a custodian of traditions, the ritual and teaching of execution under his maintenance. The other is a Visitor (Zachary Vanderburg) who doesn’t wish to pollute or distort the culture of this place no matter how distasteful or unethical he may find it. Having found somebody to listen, the Officer (Matthan Ring Black) explains to the Visitor the precise manner of punishment (and it is quite precise) to befall the guilty party.
Chicago Fringe Opera certainly appreciates Philip Glass’ musicality. Their talent and passion for opera shines through. The music is beautiful; Vanderburg and Black’s voices are a perfect complement to it.
That’s all in place. But it all feels too close to us. The stage never establishes a sense of place within the space. There are images and some usage of the architecture, but there’s never a transformation or an adjusting. Additionally, Vanderburg and Black are good singers, but both inhabit a very human, American psychology. The Machine that the Officer describes can only be so fantastic within these limitations.
This is a case of non-specificity: many of the staging choices move toward telling the story on the page rather than creating a three- (or maybe four-) dimensional story. Director George Cederquist writes in his director’s note, “That’s the heart of the opera… The relationship between art and violence.” Cederquist, like everybody else here, knows exactly what he wants to do. But somehow it didn’t pan out. (Jay Van Ort)
Chicago Fringe Opera at Lillstreet Art Center, 4401 North Ravenswood, chicagofringeopera.com, $20-$30. Through May 22.