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>>Art of Glass at Court Theatre

image: Campus NewsMore than 40 years have passed since Philip Glass, AB'56, left Chicago and went on to establish himself as one of the most important 20th-century figures in the worlds of music and theater. In November he returned to Hyde Park to present his new minimalist work In the Penal Colony, an intimate opera directed by his former wife and longtime collaborator, JoAnne Akalaitis, AB'60.

In the Penal Colony, based on Kafka's grim short story of the same name, premiered at Court Theatre following an eight-week run at A Contemporary Theater in Seattle. In December Glass and Akalaitis joined members of the cast and crew for a symposium in which they discussed their collaboration.

"What was so interesting about Kafka for me was that in the darkest place of a human soul there's still room for transfiguration," said Glass, who first came across the story as an undergraduate at Chicago. Akalaitis, the former artistic director of the New York Shakespeare Festival who currently chairs the theater department at Bard College, added to Glass's script the character of Kafka himself, who occasionally interrupts the opera to read from his diaries. "A director's job is not to do a 'correct interpretation' of a piece," she remarked at the symposium. "What the director does is respond as a colleague or as a collaborator with the author. What we do in theater is we always make something new."

Set in a 1907 island prison off the coast of Africa, the dark tale involves an execution machine that inflicts hours of unspeakable torture on a condemned prisoner by inscribing his sentence onto his back with large needles until he dies, and the soldier who administers the executions with a fanatical sense of duty, believing the machine to be the perfect dispenser of justice.

Known for larger works that have played at New York's Metropolitan Opera and Chicago's Lyric Opera, Glass intentionally wrote this piece for the small stage. Consisting of only three actors, two singers, and a string quintet, his "pocket opera" is perfectly suited for local theater. "It's like a neutron bomb," said Glass. "The more compact it is, the more powerful it is, especially in a theater like this where we can hear every word.

"This is one of my favorite environments to work in because the last row is so close to the stage," Glass said of Court Theatre at the symposium. "I would never have put a piece like this in a 600- or 900-seat theater. It would get lost." On June 6 the production will make its off-Broadway premiere at New York's 180-seat Classic Stage Company.-C.S.


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