In a world where facts are malleable, the working government gets shut down, good people are without protection of the law, bureaucrats are colluding with the powerful and mad, and officials are left to stir up chaos wherever possible, who better to turn to than Franz Kafka? And who better to deliver theatre that speaks to our current crisis than Washington’s own theatrical wizard of weird – Paata Tsikurishvili?
He and his band of “merries,” the ensemble at Synetic Theater, have gone deep underground and dark to plumb essential Kafkaesque images to address the world we live in. But even they perhaps faltered in their quest, not trusting their own righteous brand of silent physical theater to the task. Wanting to make absolutely clear their message, Synetic has resorted to – of all things — words. Paata in his own pre-curtain speech said, “There are times we have to keep silent, and there are times we must speak up.” His gravitas was stirring, and he rallies us with this production to the much-needed resistance.
All right, it’s not the first time Synetic has incorporated language. But it is clear in the choice for this project, there was some urgency. It’s also not the usual suspects carrying the show, but more power to the company that is developing such depth of talent.
The first thing that comes at you is the sound. As sure as anything Konstantine Lortkipanidze has composed for Synetic, he has achieved a marvelous soundscape for The Trial, evoking echoing subterranean passages and pipes of dripping water. His work calls up the recordings that accompany one through the Franz Kafka Museum in Prague and speak of desolation and alienation.
It is an uncomfortable world, there is no denying it. But the designers Daniel Pinha (scene) and Erik Teague (costumes) have created a theatricality that is both stunningly inventive and weirdly beautiful.
Fallen pillars suggest a civilization has fallen into decay. A giant but almost insurmountable staircase leads to the halls of justice or heaven, but in this world, both seem equally unattainable.
Coalescing images from Kafka’s many short stories, adaptor Nathan Weinberger and designers have taken the characters from the original short story “The Trial” and metamorphosed them from gray suited bureaucrats to phantasms part-insect part-rejects from the set of Star Wars. An ungeheures Ungeziefer indeed. Here are just a few of the images:
Two guards, tall and short, with glass bug eyes and feelers climb in through hollow windows and scuttle across the stage to arrest Josef K. (A third enters with a giant stinger projecting from his wasp-like tail.) They come without reasonable warrants or identification but make off with K’s trousers.
A moth flits on, but perhaps it is Anna, his next-door neighbor, a somewhat pathetic, perhaps pilled-up girl with dubious night work. Her tentacle fingers strum across every surface and can’t stop moving.
A giant caterpillar accordions out across a platform. He’s the fat-ass Instruction Judge who offers no help but only pronounces, “Your case doesn’t look good.”
A curious British Pre-Magistrate official offers a grimacing smile of unctuous assistance then waddles off like a self-important centipede.
The Priest gets closed in, coffin-like, by his own pincers into a giant carapace.
Uncle Carl is curiously presented also bug-like though nonetheless more sympathetic and therefore human. He offers to give his nephew an entré to the decent lawyer Huld, who rides in on a motorized scooter looking like Jabba the Hutt and who has to suck on plasma tubes periodically. Both are revealed in a later scene as corrupt as the system that controls them, when Carl collapses and confesses his collusion and literally becomes a groveling dog before being blood-sucked down a giant drain, becoming “the perfect client.”
The show proceeds in this fashion through a total of seven scenes. The actors, all but Josef K., fill many roles, which only adds to the feeling of nightmare. Periodically, we find K. back at his desk writing, which re-connects us to the inner world of Franz Kafka, the man who created pages of neurotic, but prescient images of a dehumanized world.
The director has led the actors surely into a hell that we will recognize without a doubt. There is less dance in this show than many have come to expect with a Synetic production, but award winning company choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili has guided the strong character-based movement. There are also the company trademark fight sequences which gives K. more spine than perhaps the original character dictated.
The ensemble members do very well together and each creates sharp character physicalizations. Shu-nan Chu, as K., leads a cast and is most convincing as the writer/ persona Josef K. Ryan Tumulty impressively rotates his roles with multiple costume changes and voices as the ever-more powerful figures of Inspector, Judge, Lawyer, and Priest against whom K. has to appear. Tori Bertocci plays Anna, the sympathetic yet enigmatic and always elusive woman that K can never achieve. Kathy Gordon plays both the grubbing, nosy Landlady and the seductress, Leni, helpmate vampire of the evil Huld. Chris Willumsen and Thomas Beheler prove themselves skilled agile villains, creepy and funny at the same time. Lee Liebeskind as Uncle Carl strikes a much-needed sympathetic note as well lending humor to the story.
closes February 18, 2018
Details and tickets
My word of caution to the entire ensemble has to do with the strain put on their vocal chords, especially when the score gets amped up and the nightmare voices compete to get a crescendo build. This company that has put so much attention on the training of the body might go the next step and train the muscles that make up the vocal apparatus in the throat to find more music, vocal range, and safety.
There will be Kafka devotees who might come with text in hand and find this and that to quibble over in terms of Paata Tsikurishvili’s changes and rearrangements of text. To my mind, he does what this company does best: find a new way into a classic and reinvent theatrical images that burn in your mind for a long time after the performance. I want to mention to Kafka groupies that the preamble “Before the Law” is inserted, I believe intact, though perhaps a bit late in the show and therefore it seems a trifle long, but what a magnificent parable. One for our times!
If you haven’t been to Synetic in a while, you need to see this show. And if you are a fan of Kafka, go for this ride that steals, manipulates and reinterprets some of Kafka’s most famous writing to create this original theatrical work.
The Trial based on the writing of Franz Kafka . Adapted by Paata Tsikurishvili and Nathan Weinberger . Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili . Choreographed by Irina Tsikurishvili . Cast: Shu-nan Chu as Josef K., Tori Bertocci (Anna), Kathy Gordon (Clerk/Ms. Grubach/Leni), and Ryan Tumulty (Inspector/Judge/Priest/Huld), Chris Willumsen (Willem), Thomas Beheler (Franz) and Lee Liebeskind (Karl/Block). Composer: Konstantine Lortkipanidze . Musical director: Irakli Kavsadze . Costumer designer: Erik Teague . Produced by Synetic Theater . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.
Dennis Deloria says
Your review of “The Trial” closely matches my own feelings seeing the performance, in sharp contrast to three other largely negative reviews, including one from a friend who I deeply respect. I was genuinely moved by the performance. I believe your deep direct experience in the theater world gives you the gravitas to fully understand Paata’s miraculous translation, and you have a remarkable gift to write your ideas/feelings in elegant, simple English.