Franz Kafka's novel The Trial, in which a man is accused of an unnamed crime and, having faced all kinds of baffling and inexplicable encounters as well as a wall of bureaucratic obstruction, is eventually executed, was published in 1925. In its evocation of the menace lurking in the shadows of everyday life and the perils of malevolent government, it seems to presage a horde of legal grotesqueries, from Stalin's show trials of the 1930s to the plight of those snatched from their homes and entombed in Guantánamo, Bagram, Abu Ghraib and George Bush's network of black sites in Europe. Joseph K is local playwright Martin McGovern's interpretation of the novel, and though it encompasses the work's socio-political warning, it also focuses on the existential uncertainty of the human condition.
Kafka was a neurotic man, a poet of sadness and insecurity, terrified of his father and unable, despite his own yearnings, to engage in a meaningful relationship with a flesh-and-blood woman. One of the women he longed for was Felice, and he wrote her letters — hundreds of pages of prose — in which he talked about his work and his view of the world, and confessed his fears and frailties. A long essay by Elias Canetti reads The Trial as a fictionalized interpretation of Kafka's failed and tentative relationship with Felice, and Felice is mentioned more than once in McGovern's play; perhaps the letters are quoted, too. In the piece, the protagonist is essentially twinned with the author who created him. As K fights the mysterious forces bent on his destruction, Kafka taps out the story on a typewriter, perched on a ledge above the stage, muses to Felice, comes down to pace on a large hamster wheel with K, and offers a kind of muted understanding, though never anything as robust as help. Ultimately, Joseph K is an exploration of the inside of Kafka's skull — and, by extension, the skulls of all of us vulnerable and exposed humans.
Presented by the LIDA Project through June 20, Bindery/Space, 720 22nd Street, 720-221-3821, www.lida.org.
LIDA director Brian Freeland has utilized elements associated with German expressionism before: people wearing black costumes and white-painted faces, a presentational acting style, some mime, moments of pure absurdity, actors periodically speaking in chorus — all devices that point to the artificiality of what you're seeing and deliberately keep emotion at a distance, encouraging something deeper and more thoughtful than easy empathy. This happens to be the perfect approach for Joseph K, which Freeland sets on an echoing warehouse stage filled with silhouettes, shadows and skeletal structures. Dan O'Neill plays the title role in whiteface, his fear and grief writ large and clown-like. As he seeks exoneration — or at least explanation — he encounters almost mechanical figures who accuse, distract or pretend to offer aid. There are staged moments that are oddly resonant, though you can't say exactly why: Actors waltz woodenly around the stage, their circular movements echoing the circling of the hamster wheel; the two men originally sent to arrest K reappear frequently and seem almost to share a single body — though they do at one point break into a quite separate music-hall soft shoe, complete with bowler hats and canes. An undertone of sadomasochism thrums beneath the action, and the female characters — sometimes alluring, sometimes menacing, sometimes both — exude a fraught sexuality. A bright-red apple appears more than once, then a chewed apple core. Even the scene in which K is killed is farcical, and the violence is at all times formalized rather than upsetting. Only Josh Hartwell's portrayal of Kafka is relatively realistic, ineffectually kind. The rest of the acting is disciplined and precise, with Elgin Kelly in particular bringing intensity and exquisite restraint to her several roles.
Joseph K explores the gulf between reality and the words we use to describe it — a gulf so deep you can fall into it and drown. Oddly, the evening isn't bleak. This is in part because the production communicates Kafka's droll and particular humor — but it is also because, like Beckett, Kafka has a way of making loss, bloodlessness and a kind of eternal falling away all beautiful. It's a thin, perverse kind of beauty — like the vocalization of his mouse protagonist in "Josephine the Singer," who, though capable of nothing more than a toneless piping, somehow made her listeners feel "partakers in the peace we long for." But it is incontrovertibly there.