By Franz Kafka, adapted by The Alley Theater
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2014 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
A traditional and faithful staging of Kafka’s unfinished story about one citizen’s entrapment in an absurd and exhaustingly bureaucratic legal system could run the risk of pretentious tedium, but this offbeat presentation from The Alley Theater avoids such pitfalls. It does so, however, at the cost of a deeper, more resonant narrative by jettisoning the complexity of the novel and replacing it with a small selection of key episodes.
The audience is limited to sixteen for each performance, broken up into two groups who travel throughout the building, with scenes set in the lobby, the stairwell, a storage area, and even the Men’s Room. The structure underscores the disjointed and uncertain nature of Kafka’s work and, since each group experiences the first act scenes in different sequence randomness is also an ingredient.
Although supervised by Martin French, each scene is written/devised and directed by different people. This accounts, no doubt, for inconsistency among the episodes. The second act stations itself entirely onstage in the performance space proper, and plays as less interesting as the first. But if viewed as less of an adaptation and more as a new work inspired by The Trial, one can receive this production on its own terms, which is an experimental collaboration that explores key notions from Kafka’s plot. Rachel Caudel’s “Before the Law” neatly establishes a tone of dread and introduces the concept of the Law as societal construct, while JoAnne Sweeney’s “Firing a Lawyer,” outlines the crushing, near-totalitarian repression of a life consumed by the bureaucratic legal system and veneration of The Lawyer.
Perhaps the strongest scene was Ben Unwin’s “Arrest One Morning”, in which protagonist Joseph K is arrested on unknown charges in an absurdist manner. The same writer’s “My Uncle’s Friend” didn’t play as well, perhaps because the cast seemed a bit adrift and unprepared in that moment. “A Short Hearing”, coauthored by Caudel, Sweeney and French, worked a little better.
After intermission, when the enterprise stationed itself wholly inside the performance space, the evening suffered some loss in momentum in a final trial scene that felt largely improvised. There was some significant audience participation during this portion, which helped engage the viewer, but it felt somewhat anticlimactic after the pointed focus of the best of the earlier segments.
Performance can be difficult to gauge in such experimental context, but of the sizable cast, there was standout work from Alphaeus Green, Jr. as our Joseph K (Denny Grinar essayed the role for the other group), George Robert Bailey, JoAnne Sweeney, Martin French, Kimby Taylor-Peterson, Leah Gravius, and Darren Harbour as an eccentric painter. Vanessa Card was our guide until she suddenly became an important part of the plot, which included her belting out a song in the trial scene. She’s something of a new face to me, but she demonstrated real presence, a good voice, and a commitment to physicality in her performance. Tentativeness is not unusual in Alley performances, and it dogged The Trail as well, but Ms. Card displayed none of that quality in her brief but memorable time in the spotlight.
An approach like this to classic material is risky, and The Alley Theater’s journey out onto this particular high wire does not succeed on all counts, but I appreciate the effort all the same, and the fact that this run is limited to a single weekend displays a sound understanding of its limited appeal by its producers. And having it arrive hot on the heels of a successful three-week run of their Star Trek parody, (apparently returning for an encore run very soon) just highlights the eclectic mix of material that defines The Alley character. It may not be for all tastes, but there’s nothing else like it in town.
August 21-23, 2014
The Alley Theater
633 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202