Putting the Cleavage Back into Kafka
A Masterful, Visceral New Version of The Trial
Roland Barthes once wrote that "Kafka is not Kafka-ism," and this kick-ass new adaptation of The Trial, directed by John Langs, knows it. There is bureaucratic horror, of course, and mystery men in suits, and implied violence. But this Trial is not the sterile, flat landscape popularly associated with "Kafka-ism"—flesh, sex, and actual violence are refreshingly (sometimes shockingly) present. As every criminal lawyer and defendant know, legal briefs can be a six-foot stack of bureaucratic jargon, but all those devilishly circuitous words determine the fates of real human bodies.
The audience begins the play in seating that resembles a nightmare jury box—steep seats walled in with waist-high wooden barriers—looking down on a black square where Josef K. (Darragh Kennan) is standing in his underwear, answering to men in suits who have mysteriously appeared in his apartment. They tell him he's under arrest. For what? They don't know and they don't care.
Soon, we hear ominous footsteps coming down the hall with the cadence of a goose step, and someone whistling "Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it's off to work I go" in a sinister key. It is the Inspector, played by MJ Sieber and looking very much like the Nazi villain in Raiders of the Lost Ark, with his slicked-back hair, beige trench coat, round eyeglasses, and conspicuously bloodied knuckles. Soon after, we are down the rabbit hole with K., into the strange world of being criminalized without having committed a crime.
The tension between sterility (the bureaucracy of law) and flesh (the people who inhabit that bureaucracy, whether as employees or victims or both) is like a high-pitched whine throughout this Trial. At one moment, K. is being interrogated with an ever- brightening spotlight in his face. Then, when he mentions that one of the policemen in his apartment had taken some of his money, we hear the sharp thuds and shrieks of instant reprisal. In another scene, K. is being told by his lawyer (a menacingly farcical version of a lawyer played by Amy Thone, who whizzes around the tight set in an electric wheeler): "You must initially remember that the initial proceedings of the Initial Court are not initially public. Therefore, any initial records of a case—initial arrest warrants, initial charges—are not initially available to either the accused or his initial attorney." Within seconds, K. is getting a blowjob under the table from the lawyer's young mistress (Hannah Mootz) in purple lingerie.
Literary critics have written about The Trial as a parable—how all adults are born into angst, all living under a non-commutable death sentence, etc. But this Trial has an extra level of horror because, as we've seen in the past year with those who've been imprisoned for refusing to answer questions about other people's politics in front of a grand jury, it has the disturbing ring of documentary truth. Consider the parallels: In The Trial, Josef K. wakes up to strange policemen in his apartment, summoning him to an interrogation and threatening him with punishment, though he has not committed any crime. Long legal proceedings and deep fear—the hallmark of Kafka and "Kafka-ism"—follow. In real life, some individuals (including Matthew Duran and Katherine Olejnik) were confronted by policemen in the early morning, summoned to an interrogation, and imprisoned (including months in solitary confinement), though they had not even been accused of a crime.
In one scene of this Trial, K.'s Aunt Clara frets over "the family name disgraced and dragged through the mud because of your offense." K. protests: "What offense?!" "Well," Clara says, "you must have done something, Josef. My god, you were arrested!"
This Trial—its threats, its claustrophobia, its sexiness—is truly excellent on its own. The fact that it even barely resembles things you can read in the newspaper makes it hideous.