Are you awake?
I believed that I was when I walked into the Kitchen Theatre. But under the weight of the noir shadowing and blue trapezoids of Rachel Lampert’s set pieces, I was no longer sure.
Lampert’s stage interpretation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial plays as if stuck in some liminal space between waking and dreaming, rolling on the swells of deep delta waves.
Indeed, the question becomes a rhetorical conceit for the play, almost a koan, a riddle whose answer cannot fully be defined. Asked several times during the production, it’s an appropriate prompt for evaluating the paranoid, surrealist landscape of Kafka’s narrative. This year’s freshman reading project, the story is that of Josef K., a man arrested on his 30th birthday for a crime that is never revealed, by a government agency that has no name. It is an anxious, absurdist indictment of legal systems that bury justice under heaps of misguiding jargon.
No stranger to dramatic adaptations of fiction, Lampert brought Frankenstein to the Kitchen stage two years ago. “I had such a great time working on Frankenstein two years ago,” remarked Lampert. “I thought, ‘Why not?’ My job as Artistic Director is quite confining when it comes to what I have time to read. Almost exclusively — plays. So this was an opportunity to pick up a book I hadn’t touched since college.”
“I do not try to represent the novel ‘on stage,'” said Lampert of her method. “I use it as an inspiration. The novel serves as the foundation.”
The novel itself has a rich history of adaptation, being reproduced by Orson Welles for the screen and by multiple directors for the stage. “I would say he is terrific. Dreamlike. Totally visual. I am sure that is why so many film directors have been drawn to his novels,” said Lampert. “It is challenging to figure out how to make the imagery work on the intimate Kitchen stage.”
Condensing Kafka’s narrative to its key elements, Lampert injected two original storylines that she wrote herself, which oscillate with the action of the novel. Slightly jarring at first, the narrative strains gradually mesh into smooth transitions. One involves an ongoing therapy session between a vague psychiatrist and her neurotic, somnambulist patient, the other involves the determined but futile efforts of a public defender to ensure fair proceedings for a client who is being detained in an unknown locale on an ambiguous charge. Easily the more engaging of the two, watching the lawyer rail in exhaustion against an impossibly Byzantine system is frightening, and plays as a perfect complement to Kafka’s story. The prisoner remains unseen, existing only as a disembodied voice whose desperate plea of “Help me!” echoes like a lonely voice against stalactites. When the lawyer asks how long he has been detained, the voice replies since 1651, when he was burned alive on an accusation of witchcraft. It is a surreal and haunting moment, realizing the relevance of Kafka’s work.
Unfortunately, some of Kafka’s best language is lost in the translation from book to play. The dialogue used, with few exceptions, is a simplified rendering of Kafka’s rhetoric. Regardless, what sustains The Trial is the dizzying atmosphere it creates, sending us deeper down the rabbit hole. Everything has a frantic feel, from the irregular, disjointed backdrop, to the choreography, to the urgent, driving soundtrack. Minimalist staging and set design blanketed in black and blue hues forms abstract polygons, a mise en scene lifted from the cortexes of Picasso and Bunuel. Snatches of Bart