Adapted by Christopher Gallu from a novel by Franz Kafka
Directed by Christopher Gallu
Produced by Catalyst Theater Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
There are some great novels which simply cannot be happily adapted to the stage. I regret to report that The Trial is one of them, notwithstanding some extraordinary inventiveness by adapter-director Christopher Gallu. Imagine an account of the apocalypse given by an insurance clerk, and you have some idea of the style and voice Kafka uses to create The Trial. This voice and style, which constitute the guts of Kafka’s technique, here and elsewhere, is just not suitable for the stage.
The Trial is subtle and deep, and is best read not all at once, but in pieces, and in the contemplative mode. Its absurdity is apparent, but it is not immediately obvious why it is absurd. Read as a novel, it can be put down, reflected upon, and picked up again. Seen as a play, the theatergoer is relentlessly carted from one absurdity to the next, until he is finally deposited in the chilling conclusion.
Part of the problem is that the protagonist, defendant Joseph K. (David Johnson), is not a particularly likeable character. Prone to envy, hostility and great gusts of self-righteousness, Joseph K. is nonetheless a curiously passive fellow, except in matters of amour. There he is virtually an obsessive-compulsive, practically jumping on a co-habitant of his boarding house (Catherine Deadman), his lawyer’s mistress (Elizabeth Richards), and the Court Usher’s wife (Deadman). Inexplicably, some of these women reciprocate his interest. In a novel, where the reader supplies much of the energy himself, such a protagonist is less of a handicap than on the stage, where an unlikeable and passive protagonist is an invitation to the audience to disengage.
So: on Joseph K.’s thirtieth birthday, two boorish guards (Christopher Janson and Jim Jorgensen) arrest him. They can’t tell him the charge – they don’t know themselves – but they do haul him before an inspector (Ashley Ivey) who barks a series of meaningless questions at him before releasing him without explanation. Thereafter, his upcoming trial hangs over him like a thundercloud. He is hauled before a magistrate (Grady Weatherford), where he gives an impassioned speech, proclaiming his innocence on all conceivable charges and vilifying a system of justice which could imagine he might be guilty of something. (At the end, the magistrate dryly informs him “you have waived your right to interrogation.”) At the insistence of his uncle (Jorgensen), Joseph K. employs a lawyer (Janson) – a great scholarly man, full of unverifiable promises and huge windy utterances, some in Latin. In desperation, Joseph K. engages the services of the court portraitist (Weatherford), who promises not to secure an acquittal (apparently no one is acquitted outright) but to perpetually delay the outcome of his trial, so that he is never convicted. In the end, none of it works.
Gallu labors mightily, and with considerable success, to open up Catalyst’s tiny stage for these remarkable events. By projecting video onto scrims on each side of the stage, Gallu manages to create, at will, K.’s boarding-house, the court at which he gives his speech, the dizzying corridors of the legal building, his lawyer’s apartment, the portraitist’s mean dwelling, and, most impressively, a rain-drenched street-scene. These videoed scenes are full of people and action, and periodically give us a sense of the characters’ interior states. I have seen this technique used before – in Synetic’s Animal Farm and the former Actor’s Theatre of Washington’s Ruffian on the Stair – but never so extensively, or so well.
Opening up the stage, however, is not the same thing as opening up the heart of the play. Some things simply go wrong: the mordant mood music occasionally drowns out the prerecorded narration by the formidable Ralph Cosham. (But the fact that a narrator is required at all is an indication that the book cannot fully be translated to the stage.) Johnson, who had some timing problems in the show I saw, is a disappointment as Joseph K. Some of the other actors seemed uninspired as well.
But the real problem is with the enterprise itself. We should be horrified by the events of the story, and all the more so for the civilized veneer which surrounds their development. But that they happen to Joseph K., who had he been born eighty years later would have been considered Yuppie Scum, makes them less horrifying to us, and in this presentational form we have less of a chance to go beyond Joseph’s personality and contemplate the true implications of Kafka’s story.
But let us not end on this low note. Gallu’s work, though in my view unsuccessful here, reinforces his reputation of one of the area’s real forces for theatrical innovation. Moreover, there are some terrific performances. Jorgensen, the area’s best at enthusiastically evil characters, presents a series of delightful degenerates. Weatherford is absolutely wonderful as the court portraitist – imagine Stanley Kowalski as an influence-peddler. And Catherine Deadman turns everything she touches into gold.
Finally, I am authorized to say that my dear bride, who was my companion for the evening and is the editor of this site, disagrees with me entirely and finds the production absolutely wonderful.
(Running time:1:50 with 1 intermission). The Trial runs Thursdays through Saturdays at 7.30 and Saturdays at 2 until November 3 at the Capital Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th Street SE. All tickets are $10, and may be ordered at 1.800.494.TIXS or online at http://www.catalysttheater.com/.