In the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble’s version of The Trial, ghoulish torturers lash their victims, Dietrich-esque babes flash their garters, and court fops nearly break into a soft-shoe. Joseph K wakes daily to the same nightmare, but every day his dream seems to unfold in a different theatrical style. Though fun to watch, this playful approach ultimately undermines the parable’s power to disturb.
Director Eve Adamson borrows from a wide range of literary and dramatic traditions in staging the Andre Gidé and Jean-Louis Barrault adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial: surreal expressionism, bedroom farce, vaudeville, Dickensian eccentricity, as well as heightened naturalism. Founded by a breakaway group of Jean Cocteau Rep veterans, the troupe demonstrates a formidable arsenal of theatrical weaponry.
The production’s inspired design team nails every mood and genre. Set designer Robert Klingelhoefer’s screens-on-wheels scatter and merge to form everything from murky streets and impenetrable walls to revolving doors for slapstick entrances. Tony Mulanix’s bleak lighting casts ominous shadows, made even spookier by Ellen Mandel’s discordant synthesizer chimes. Margaret A. McKowen’s beige-tone Edwardian costumes evoke the elegance, lewdness, and misery of this multifaceted world.
In both grand tableaux and intimate scenes, Adamson choreographs with meticulous timing, while her large, versatile cast serves up a parade of delicious cameos—from the sad-sack bailiff and his lustful wife to the various bewigged and pompous court muckety-mucks.
With its frantic pace and shift of styles, it’s no surprise that the production loses the tension of its storyline. Is The Trial a parable of totalitarianism? A Freudian exploration of guilt? A cosmic joke? Adamson’s conception feels muddy, and the stylistic profusion distracts from what should feel like a relentless progression toward an inevitable end.
Worse, Adamson’s interpretation of Joseph K limits our emotional investment in his fate. John Lenartz portrays Kafka’s bank manager as a manic clown figure, working off his anxiety with calisthenics, joining in a comic pas de deux with his uncle, flailing about in an assortment of lascivious gropings. Although some scenes move us through the sheer power of their imagery, we have trouble identifying with K as an ordinary man suddenly entrapped by mysterious and sinister forces. In a world where justice and reason, doors and teapots, have suddenly taken flight, Kafka’s protagonist has got to be the one person whose feet stay firmly planted on the ground.