City Lit Theater Company

City Lit Theater Company’s associate artistic director, Mark Richard, seems to have done the impossible. He has taken one of Kafka’s most ambiguous, obscure, and maddeningly vague novels–The Castle–and created an interesting, faithful adaptation. Most surprising of all, considering how cerebral and essentially actionless Kafka’s work is, he’s created an absolutely stageworthy production.

The very qualities that make The Castle a masterpiece of modern fiction–its deceptively simple prose, which conceals more than it reveals, the biting satire that only hints at what is being satirized, Kafka’s paranoiac eye for hidden messages and shades of meaning–are certain to trip up anyone hoping to translate the novel to the stage. How can the would-be adapter hope to capture all the contradictions in Kafka’s work–his despair and his humor, his alienation and his wit, his realist’s eye for detail and his mystic’s taste for allegory? How to cope with the way Kafka allows his story to develop with all of the randomness of real life? This sort of haphazard plot works fine in a novel (sometimes), but can be excruciating on the stage. Most important, how does one construct a play around a character like K.?

Every detail Kafka reveals about K. is open to question: his profession, his reason for coming to the village, his motive for staying. The authorities may have no intention of ever allowing K. to practice his profession. On the other hand, K. may not even be a land surveyor. All of K.’s adventures in the unnamed village overseen by the Castle may be based on a bureaucratic version of “Chicken” in which K. must maintain he is the land surveyor the authorities asked for and the authorities must maintain they were expecting one even though they don’t seem to need him. In fact, Kafka’s novel resembles nothing so much as a newspaper photograph: the more closely one looks at it, the more fuzzy the details become.

How did adapter and director Richard manage to find his footing? Based on Richard’s stiff, soporific adaptation last season of Henry James’s charming short novel The American, I wouldn’t have bet a bent penny he could have carried off Kafka’s significantly more complex work. Yet somehow he did–as this sensitive, intelligent production proves.

Part of Richard’s strength comes from the sheer eclecticism of his direction. He is certainly not afraid to mix half a dozen or so different genres on the same stage, the better to capture Kafka’s world. This production begins with a bit of Chaplinesque physical comedy–three pompous officials in bowlers and old-fashioned business suits go through the motions of some meaningless office work. That’s followed by a scene reminiscent of gothic romance, complete with moody lighting and a heroine reminiscing about K. as if he’d been her dark lover. Even within the same scene, some actors play their roles with cartoonish broadness while others play theirs with serious naturalism. The result is not, as you might suppose, utter chaos, but the stage equivalent of magical realism–a style (or rather a mixture of styles) that goes a long way toward capturing Kafka’s own blend of realism and fantasy, satire and allegory, high tragedy and low comedy.

Naturally, the full weight of bringing life to such demanding material falls on Richard’s 11 cast members, who perform admirably despite the fact that every actor except Marc Silvia (who plays K.) has at least two or three roles. No one seems strained beyond capacity, and almost everyone seems perfectly at home in Kafka’s world. A number of them even thrive there–most notably Kelly Nespor, Michael Salvador, and Tina Gluschenko.

Ironically, Silvia’s K. is the one disappointing characterization. Certainly a large part of this disappointment comes from seeing K.–who is little more than a faceless cipher in Kafka’s novel–given a shape and a definite personality. Somehow Silvia’s K. is too aggressive and bullying to pass for Kafka’s K. True, K. is more aggressive and less of a victim than Kafka’s other two famous protagonists–Gregor Samsa of The Metamorphosis and Joseph K. of The Trial. Still, Silvia’s K. looks and acts more like an escapee from a Hemingway short story than like the product of Kafka’s imagination.

This one flaw, however, in no way endangers Richard’s fine production, which manages to bring a difficult work to the stage with intelligence, sensitivity, and plenty of wit and imagination.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.