Review: “The Trial” by Franz Kafka. Adapted by Kenneth Albers. Produced by New Century Theatre Company. Directed by John Langs. With Darragh Kennan, Michael Patten, Alex Matthews, MJ Sieber, Marty Mukhalian, Hannah Mootz, Alexandra Tavares and Amy Thone. Now through April 28, 2013 at InScape Arts.
New Century Theatre Company debuted with a bang in 2008 with a bravura production of Elmer Rice’s expressionistic nightmare play, “The Adding Machine” directed by John Langs. Due to the very busy schedules of the NCTC company, they’ve only produced three additional full productions since then; a couple of “mini” productions and a monthly reading series. The company is one of the three tenants of the 12th Avenue Arts Center which broke ground earlier this year, (along with Strawberry Theatre Workshop and Washington Ensemble Theater) and plan on creating fuller seasons once they have a permanent home.
Currently, NCTC has settled into the InScape Arts building in the no-man’s land between the International District and the stadiums, a confusing mass of oddly angled interconnecting roads, train tracks and vastly different societies of culture. And, InScape Arts is also the former Immigration Building, the “Ellis Island” of Seattle for decades and its echo ridden hallways and air of oppression are the perfect setting for NCTC’s current production, a “freely” adapted version of Franz Kafka’s “The Trial”. It’s the ideal setting for a play about a man on trial for an unknown crime in a society riddled with oppression, confusion, and layers of obsfuscative injustice. “The Trial” is also a fantastic homecoming for NCTC returning to the roots of their inaugural production of “The Adding Machine” with the same director but more importantly, a similar expressionistic style complete with bizarre characters oddly made up and costumed; hand held light sources and a general sense of nightmarish terror. “The Trial” doesn’t quite reach the artistic heights of “The Adding Machine” but it comes close. Director John Langs and the NCTC company have crafted a menacing, creepy and frequently very funny piece of theater that is immaculately constructed, designed and performed. Seattle is blessed with a lot of terrific theater right now, but “The Trial” is the darkest and most theatrical of the lot, and a must see for lovers of expressionistic theater and absurdist drama.
It’s also not your Grandma’s “The Trial”…it’s a new adaptation from Kenneth Albers with cuts to the original plot, radical changes in the gender of many of the characters, and some new lines that modernize the text, including a very funny moment that recalls a certain glove not fitting in a certain infamous trial of a certain famous athlete. But, at heart, “The Trial” is still the story of the nebbishy accountant Joseph K who awakens on his 40th birthday to discover he’s been arrested for an unknown crime and Joseph’s attempts to unravel the mystery behind his arrest that involve his landlady, a concerned aunt, a very odd defense attorney and a very sexy sculptor. Mr. Albers’ clever script trims away some of the excess from the original material and his gender reassignments not only equalize the gender gap inherent in many older plays, (female characters are always wives, mothers or whores) but gives the actresses in the company many of the meatiest roles. The menace and horror of Kafka’s work is still very much present, but the dark humor that at times can recall Terry Gilliam’s film “Brazil” only enhances the material and Kafka’s themes of societal oppression. It’s a relatively taut hour and 45 minutes or so without an intermission; you’re advised to refrain from overindulging in liquids prior to the performance. The jury box seating makes it impossible to sneak out for a potty break…yet another Kafka-esque touch.
Mr. Albers’ strong script is a plus, as is Mr. Langs’ taut direction. The actual playing area for the actors is not large but Mr. Albers has neatly choreographed some very complicated moves within that small canvas which is very Kafka-esquely designed by Jennifer Zeyl as a simple rectangle surrounded on three sides by oppressive jury boxes where the audience sits. Geoff Korf’s expressionistic lighting design incorporates actor manipulated lighting, including some nifty light up glasses worn by the landlady, and Robertson Witmer’s atmospherically menacing sound design is nicely ricocheted off the walls of the authentically bureaucratic InScape building. Kimberley Newton’s costumes manage to reference multiple time periods of the 20th Century without specifying any one particular era, yet they all work perfectly together to create a mood that veers from comic to horrifying in a split second.
On the acting front, Darragh Kennan is very commanding as a very meek character; it takes great acting strength to dominate while playing the weak and ineffectual, and as usual, Mr. Kennan is superb. Michael Patten and Alex Matthews are appropriately menacing as the agents sent to arrest Joseph (and other roles as well) with NCTC’s MJ Sieber equally fine in two roles, as the creepy Magistrate and a Priest with some solemn advice for Joseph.
But, to be honest, it’s the ladies who really dominate here, many of them playing roles originally conceived as male by Kafka. Marty Mukhalian as Joseph’s concerned Aunt Clara and Tonya Andrews as the Landlady were nicely understated in roles that could be grotesque or dull in lesser hands. Hannah Mootz as Leni, the sultry servant, and Alexandra Tavares as the sculptor Titorelli provided the sex appeal but managed to do so with a lot of wit and intellect.
The big performance of the night belongs to Amy Thone and her macabre take on Joseph’s defense attorney, Sophie Kleist. Revised by Mr. Albers to an older female, Sophie comes equipped with her own power suit, a crown of haggish red hair and self-propelled by her own Hoveround. At times the character seems ready to drift off into the land of senility, but once Sophie is on Joseph’s case, her sharp mind and quick tongue are ready for the attack. It’s a brazen and hysterical performance by Ms Thone that at times seems to channel Agnes Moorehead, the late, great character actress known to most people as Endora on “Bewitched” but for those of us who grew up on classic films of the 40s and 50s, as one of the most brilliant actresses of her time. Ms Thone’s Sophie is audacious, cunning, sharp witted and a master at whipping around on her Hoveround…she stops that baby EVERY time precisely at her mark. The performance is so delicious, you almost want to beg Mr. Albers to craft a spinoff play just for this character and the actress who plays her…I’d pay to see “Sophie Kleist: Attorney at Law” at a theater/cinema near you!
“The Trial” is faithful to the spirit of Franz Kafka but it’s also a refreshing new take on the material. New Century’s expert production is a welcome return to their roots…and, once they move into that fancy new space on 15th in a year or so, they need to think about doing some Ionesco. They have a strong affinity for the Absurd and the talent to pull it off.
But, is there any way to craft “Sophie Kleist” into “Rhinoceros”?