nytheatre.com review by James Comtois
August 13, 2008
A Panopticon is a type of prison designed to allow an observer to see all the prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell whether they are being watched, theoretically establishing good behavior through paranoia of being constantly visible.
Writer Steve Pardun uses the idea of both the literal prison design and Michel Foucault's theory of Panopticism to create Panopticon, a neat yet flawed drama that plays like a cross between the 1960s science fiction television series The Prisoner (minus the large white balloons) and Park Chan-wook's 2003 South Korean revenge film Oldboy (minus the ultra-violence).
Patrick has been abducted in the middle of the night while sleeping. He's blindfolded and taken out of his bed and thrown into a prison cell. No one will tell him why he's been put there. He spends his first night in his cell trying to figure out what crime, if any, he's committed. Patrick meets Dr. Manus, who tells Patrick he's been stripped of his identity and re-christened Prisoner #67401. Dr. Manus refuses to tell Pat—er, Prisoner #67401—why he's been incarcerated, since part of the plan is for him to figure out on his own why he's there.
The doctor tells Patrick/67401 he's in the Panopticon: a prison where he's under constant observation. He will not interact with—or meet—any other prisoners. He will refrain from using foul language. He will do what's asked of him without question. He will be responsible for his own rehabilitation.
At first, Patrick/67401 is rebellious, deliberately emulating McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, insisting he's done nothing wrong (while Dr. Manus insists he most certainly has). And he is punished for his insolence. Music is blasted into his cell at 125 decibels all night. His bed is taken away. He is warned the temperature will be dropped by one degree each week he refuses to do the assignment given to him (which is to fold reams of blank sheets of paper in half). And, of course, he is watched constantly.
Meanwhile, Patrick/67401 gets visits from an imaginary version of Celia, the love of his life, who tries to help him keep it together. Through her and Dr. Manus's visits, we learn more and more about Patrick/67401's past, and eventually we find out who's put him in his cell and why.
There are revelations, then a twist, and then some more revelations.
Panopitcon definitely has some flaws that are hard to ignore. The location and reason for the Panopticon, once revealed, tax the imagination a little too much (or at least need a bit more explanation than what's given). The script also omits some details about Patrick/67401's past that seem crucial in getting the whole story. Plus, the idea of how being constantly watched can demoralize a person isn't fully realized: acknowledging his finally-revealed "crime" seems to break the hero down much more than the torment of being under constant surveillance.
However, this is an engaging show with engaging performances. I was intrigued from beginning to end as to where this was going, and despite my previously mentioned complaints, I wasn't let down.
Pardun is decent in the lead role, although more convincing when his captors start to break him than when he's defiant. Mark Armstrong is effectively chilling and officious as cryptic Dr. Manus. But it's Meg Loftus who really steals the show, giving a truly tender and sympathetic performance as Celia. Her portrayal of Patrick/67401's girlfriend gives the show its emotional core.
Despite not delving into the theory of Panopticism as deep as its title would lead you to believe, Panopticon is an intriguing and entertaining Kafkaesque show.