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‘Procrustes’ a dark prison comedy

Play highlights inequity, shies away from race problems

Set both in the days before the 1980 New Mexico State Penitentiary prison riots and in ancient Greek times, “The House of Procrustes” offers hilarious commentary on present-day prison issues in the United States.

A play like this is overdue, especially in a state that in 1980 had the country’s most infamous prison riots, during which more than 30 prisoners died. At best, the play is a unique and entertaining way to start discussion about why this country looks to prison and punishment as rehabilitation for those who do not fit the “bed.”

The “bed” of course, is the main ingredient of the metaphor between the myth of Procrustes and modern prisons.

According to the myth, Procrustes had a bed made of iron that he fit into perfectly. If his guests, who he frequently invited to his house, could not also perfectly fit into the bed, he made them fit. Chop off a few fingers, stretch out a few toes, and the poor misfit was rehabilitated. Or at least in the play, Procrustes thinks so.

In Jim Barton and Joe Feldman’s updated version of the myth, Procrustes is the inventor of the present-day prison system. During the course of the play, he makes sweetheart deals with the authorities, the King Midas, to run a guest house.

Guests are welcome to come and feast on beans and sopapillas, but when they get sleepy, Procrustes makes them fit into his bed. The house quickly evolves into a prison complete with barbed wire running along the Greek architecture, the twisted Procrustean bed becomes a wall decoration. Procrustes’ servants become prison staff who move from the kitchen to a staff office with candy and coffee machines.

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Eventually Procrustes becomes ambitious and agrees to house the giant-killer, Theseus. This sets the prison staff on edge and eventually creates the conflict of the play, setting the stage for the prison riots.

The authors, one of which is former New Mexico State Penitentiary inmate Jim Barton, describe the play as a dark comedy. The play was often grotesque and cracked some gruesome but hilarious jokes. But the authors didn’t develop the opportunity to critique the prison industry to its fullest.

They often abandoned the comedy in favor of completing the long, drawn-out plot, which relied too much on dialogue rather than action. In addition, their analysis of prison issues was often confusing.

Although Barton noted that the play could be cast with characters of any race, the play did not directly confront issues of race. This sort of analysis is needed as race is the focus of much recent debate about prisons. The majority of the characters cast were not people of color.

On a similar note, although the play was supposed to be set in the New Mexico State Penitentiary, there was little indication that the issues were specific to New Mexico, such as issues of race, culture and language.

Aside from these problems, the play definitely has its moments with a strong cast and realistic dialogue.

William Sterchi, who played Procrustes, was an excellent villain and does not over-play it. Joe Pesce thoroughly utilized his creative freedom by playing six different characters that were all well written and added an interesting twist to the play.

The other characters played convincing and humanistic prisoners and prison staff. The performance of the final few scenes was flawless, which made up for the slow pace of previous scenes.

The play runs Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the South Broadway Cultural Center, at 1025 Broadway SE. For more information, call 848-1323.

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