Reviewed by Will Stackman
This new adaptation of Franz Kafka's early unfinished novel by the ART's associate artistic director, Gideon Lester, which runs almost three hours with intermission, may be the first attempt in English to recreate the whole work onstage. However, versions of "Amerika" have been seen on collegiate stages, such as San Francisco State back when New Directions added the book to the radical canon in the '70s. The work's been done as an opera in Finland, had Austrian, French-Canadienne, German, Israeli, Japanese and Polish adaptations, and was Richard Schechner's East Coast Artists second major project in the '90s. Lester's "Amerika or the Disappearance" clearly reflects the novelist's early sense of the cinematic and is suited to Tony-awarded Theatre de la Jeune Lune's style of physical theatre. Director Dominique Serrand, cofounder of that group, did a somewhat controversial production of Moliere's "The Miser" with the ART last spring, and core members of his company appear here again.
Both Lester, born and raised in England, and Serrand, from France, have lived and worked in the United States for a number of years. This production may reflect their own first perceptions of the country as well as young Kafka's Prague-bound worldview while dreaming of his family's lost connections in New York. The result in any case is an interesting pastiche of turn of the century fantasy about the land of opportunity interpreted via current Continental-influenced theatre practice. But the final effect falls a bit flat, perhaps because the author never finished this work, an outgrowth of a short story, "The Stoker," about justice for a working man. The production ends groping for whatever epiphany Kafka might have had in mind as Karl Rossman, played by TJL's Nathan Keepers ascends via video into the distance towards the Great Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, whatever that marvelous circus was intended to be.
The show begins abruptly with Keepers and Sarah Agnew, both members of TJL seen last spring in the ART/TJL production of "The Miser" entering down an aisle, clambering onto a stage littered with a constructivist set, and beginning the show's narration. Agnew, playing Fanny, shadows Karl unseen throughout the show, providing narration mostly about his mental state, a curious blend of silent movie subtitles and conscience. Her part is inconsistently written, fading from the scene somewhat inexplicably now and then. Agnew does however maintain an interesting focal point for the action. The first scene, as Karl tries to find his way off the boat in New York features TJL stalwart, Steven Epp, as the Stoker, the first of his three parts. This scene ends inconclusively when ART's Will LeBow in the first of his three parts as Uncle Jacob, a shipping magnate, comes to rescue his young nephew. Epps and Lebow were the major antagonists in "The Miser." Karl incidentally has been exiled to America because their housemaid seduced him and got pregnant, apparently looking to advance her station. Several themes of the piece are rather obscurely presented, true to the novel, but not especially dramatic despite the cast's best efforts. The young man is in search of so much, a new home, a father figure, love, meaning, etc. that Keepers can only blunder ahead as a sad sack comic, without much chance to develop a character.
The action then proceeds to suggestions of Amerikan wealth and business intrigue as Uncle Jacob's friend and business rival, Pollunder, played by ART's Thomas Derrah in the first of his two main parts, whisks Karl away from exciting New York to his country estate. Kafka's family had had chancy business dealings over here which contribute to the fantasy. In the country, Karl meets the ART's Remo Airaldi in the first of his two main parts as Green, a soup-slurping Western businessman. There's also Klara, Pollunder's vampish daughter played by ART/MXAT student Deborah Knox, who also had a lead in the company;s season opener, "The Provok'd Wife." This sequence, which features video backgrounds of the mansion, including cast members at times, culminates in a gratuitous nude scene and Karl's being disowned by his uncle, in a letter, delivered by Green. It's time, apparently, for our hero to discover the real world.
Aimlessly wandering at night, having been provided by Green with the suitcase and umbrella he had misplaced on the boat, Karl finds refuge in a trailer dragged onstage by LeBow as the Innkeeperess. This moment is a brief parody of "Mother Courage" done by the ART several seasons ago and got appreciative chuckles from regulars in the audience. He soon discovers he has roommates, two dodgey workmen played by Derrah and Epps. Epps plays the villainous Delemarche, a Frenchman; Derrah, Robinson, a drunken Irishman. The pair dog Karl until the end of the play. After increasingly difficult travels, he escapes their clutches for a while after the intermission when he finds a position as an elevator boy at the Hotel Occidental, somewhere in the MidWest.
His misadventures there involve Steven Epps as the Head Cook, who reminds him of his mother, LeBow as the Head Waiter, his irascible boss, Airaldi as the Spanish-muttering Head Porter, and Therese, played by ART/MXAT grad, Katori Hall, a young black maid with whom he has a fling. His life there comes crashing down when Robinson shows up drunk and is beaten up in boy's dorm by Karl's coworkers. Taking the injured drunk home, our hero winds up back in the hands of Delamarche, who rescues him from a passing policeman--by shooting the cop. The two rascals are now serving Brunelda, an immense woman, played by BosCon MFA opera singer Christine Teeters, who lives in what looks like a small boxcar. Karl's enlisted to help bathe this enormous woman and escapes only after the student who lives next door murders Delamarche and submerges him in Brunelda's bathe. The latter character, played by ART/MXAT student Jorge Rubio, who's been seen earlier as an English teacher and a fellow elevator boy , is simply a deus ex machina shadowed inexplicably by Fanny and a nameless whore. After Brunelda sings "The Star Spangled Banner" in German--from her rolling bath--Karl gets an audition and transportation off to the Great Nature Theatre of Oklahoma. A rather free-form finale brings the whole cast back on in various guises, including ART senior actor Jeremy Geidt, who's been wandering through the play from household to household as the Ancient Servant, carrying a lantern. Fanny incidentally winds up with angel wings as part of the choir, a echo of both the original fantasy and perhaps Kuschner's play.
There's a year's worth of thought and effort in planning this production, but given Theatre de la Jeune Lune's approach, this company, full of seasoned actors, probably needs as much studio time to make the whole thing come together. At present "Amerika or the Disappearance" seems more like a graphic novel or a storyboard for a film. It's not surprising that the most effective reinterpretations of Kafka's work have been in the cinema. This current stage piece won't be the last such attempt in the theatre, of course. Kafka sells. The next ART/TJL joint effort, like "The Miser", revival of a production done in Minneapolis, opens the next season in the Loeb with a version of Bizet's "Carmen" scored for two grand pianos and sung in French with surtitles. Perhaps semi-grand opera based on a racey novel is the right material for TJL.