"In the Penal Colony" was the first Kafka I ever read, on the recommendation of a brainiac friend I wanted to impress. Luckily, at 16 years old I was too naive to think of Kafka as, well, the intimidating literary giant my college TAs made him out to be. "In the Penal Colony" was simply a great story about a hot place where a sadistic Officer, last disciple of the dead Old Commander, yearned to uphold the tradition of carving a violated principle onto the flesh of the accused for 12 excruciating hours as a form of execution. The Officer's nostalgia for the Machine's heyday and his disappointment over its current unpopularity became his frustrated doom.
My reading was slack-jawed and amazed, setting off all kinds of inner fireworks. I liked that stuff. Later, as my pretensions of knowing something about books rose, I read the Machine as constraining social structure; the Old Commander, inventor of the Machine, as Yahweh; the toady Officer who worshipped the Machine and its inventor as my high school principal, a cop, or anyone else who seemed an ambassador of the cold, cruel, grownup world. But I think I read better the first time around; while slathering the social commentary onto Kafka's modernism is certainly possible, it is most useful to approach him as a writer of fiction, not manifestoes for the Existentialist Party.
"In the Penal Colony" is, structurally, a conversation between the Officer and the Visitor. The Officer exalts the Machine and the Old Commander, and complains bitterly that the New Commander is doing away with this pinnacle of human disciplinary greatness. The Visitor weighs his moral duty to oppose a 12-hour execution that happens without trial against his desire to be culturally sensitive when traveling abroad (which is a weirdly contemporary struggle, considering current debates about China and ritual genital mutilation). That's about all the plot for the story--and the 90-minute, intermissionless opera--until the sudden, climactic finish.
But writing Kafka into the production adds another element, which is ultimately what makes In the Penal Colony worth seeing. If it were merely a staged reproduction, it would be just as well to read the story at home and treat the performance as a Philip Glass concert with some costumed people up front trying to sing along (which you may want to do anyway if you like Glass but don't care about Kafka).
The creators--composer Glass, director Joanne Akalaitis (a five-time Obie award-winner), librettist Rudolph Wurlitzer (who, besides sharing his jubilant name with an old jukebox, has written five novels and many screenplays), and noted local choreographer Pat Graney--stylized the stage action with highly polished gestures and symbolic tics, making Kafka's imaginative link to the story just as important as the story itself. He sketches the Machine and scribbles words on the stage, chairs, and sheets of his bed. His comments and movements spill over into the Visitor's strange reactions to an even stranger situation. He attracts the rage of the prisoner and serves as prop man for the bloodthirsty Officer. You can build all the metaphorical castles you want on In the Penal Colony, and you might be dead right--but ACT gives us just what we need: A work of imagination about a work of imagination. Even for a reader, that is much more difficult than it sounds; for a collaborative process like theater, it's remarkable.