Should theater be painful to watch? Many of us seek escape in entertainment, thus the success of television shows like Project Runway and theatrical productions like Spamalot. But what about theater that is politically active and aware? Should it be so accurate that the audience wants to look away? Or should its message be more subtle, and artistic? Do we want from theater what we can (or should) see on the evening news?
Those questions are especially relevant to the current performance of The Trial, produced by the Black Moon Theater Company. A theatrical translation of Kafka’s famous work, the show is timely, hard-hitting – and painful.
Kafka is known for his own life of being an outcast and has represented loneliness and anxiety in the literary world. He wrote The Trial between 1914-1915, while working as an official in the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia.
It was relevant then, and it is relevant now.
The Trial tells the story of Joseph K. who is arrested without explanation early one morning. No one will inform him of what he is accused of or who is accuser is, but he is repeatedly advised to confess, told that it is the only way of surviving.
Attempting to fuse Kafka’s unfinished work with America’s unfinished war, the show does not open with the actors, but with a video montage. Footage of 9/11 is played, along with clips from the news following the event. President Bush is in many scenes, and the sound bites are not what could be called inspiring. The footage explores the government’s actions following 9/11 and the infringement on civil liberties that have taken place in the name of “catching terrorists” and “national security.”
The totalitarian aspects of the Law and the Court in K’s society and Bush’s fanatic patriotism are all too similar. When, “You are with us or against us. Patriotism means no questions,” flashes across the screen, the effect is chilling. Lines of the show resonate strongly, including the need for “a public discussion of a public disgrace.”
Racism is a major feature in the video, as it is in the show. Footage of protests, police violence and everyday encounters are included. In the current phobia of terrorism, the line from the play, “Many people believe that they can determine the outcome of the trial based on the face of the defendant,” is especially poignant. The fact that it is spoken by an actor whose face is painted completely white is even more poignant. Everyone in the show except K, the defendant, has a white face.
The script utilizes the potential drama, maximizing every moment to the fullest, be it guards shouting in unison, half naked girls writhing on the floor, or providing as little light as possible to the stage during key moments of the show. The performance does not shy from the painful aspects of a totalitarian state, and it visualizes them for the audience. There is a scene of brutal violence, with guards beating and whipping other guards. K stands there watching, and the audience is forced to as well. However, what is done is overdone, and the cliché “less is more” should have applied to the script as well as the set. The show feels more bizarre and haphazard than dramatic.
The use of videos is intriguing at first, but distracting after. While the news footage is excellent, having the faces of the performing actors hovering above the actual performance is distracting.
The novel The Trial was never finished, and the same feeling pervades this show. The chronology of the show is unclear and uncertain, as is K himself. His actions are inexplicable, including his random sexual encounters with women. Many scenes end suddenly, leaving a confused perception of what happened and why.
Yassar Akhtar performance of K’s bewilderment and confusion is middling. Never does K become a solid character, resolute in any form. Akhtar’s delivery is mild when it should be passionate, bewildered when it should be furious.
He refuses to be held accountable for the consequences of his actions. “It’s not our job to tell you why,” is repeated often. “It’s not my job to change things here!” is another popular sentiment. It is all too easy to see the parallels between K as the everyman of Kafka’s age and the everyman of today’s world.
In a society of isolation and escapism, The Trial is a very bitter pill to swallow. But despite its rough edges, perhaps it should be prescribed at large.
The Trial runs September 22 – October 28 at the Clemente Solo Velez Cultural Center’s Teatro LA TEA.