Curiouser and Curiouser

There’s something mighty strange going on at the Berkeley City Club. The latest play by Central Works has a very different feel from other collaboratively created pieces the company has done in the past. Some of that feeling is inevitable because A Man’s Home… is based on Franz Kafka’s The Castle, and the German-Czech author’s atmosphere of labyrinthine bureaucracy and foreboding pervades his work so much that anything like it is now called “Kafkaesque.” But no doubt much of it as well comes from the unfamiliar aesthetic of writer/director Aaron Henne, who’s new to the company.

Joe Jordan in A Man’s Home… Photo by Jay Yamada.

The performances are awfully strong throughout A Man’s Home…, but they’re also distinguished by highly stylized movements and poses, as if in a clown show. In fact, the tone and style of the piece at times seems to owe as much to Lewis Carroll as to Kafka.

Actors enter with a moan or a sharp intake of breath, as if the act of being brought into being is painful for them. It makes it seem is if they’re being demonically possessed. All are pale and barefoot in appealing outfits by Tammy Berlin suggestive of Kafka’s own early 20th century setting. When people are asked who they are or what they do, they struggle to remember, hesitating as is barely piecing it together. When saying their names for the first time they stammer, convulsing, as if it’s physically painful to spit them out. Our protagonist is no exception. “I … am … a man.  I … am … a maker of maps.  I … am … a land surveyor!”

Theo Black plays the agitated, disoriented hero of the piece, whose striving is not to do great deeds but to get anything done. K. is a stranger in town–in fact the only stranger in town–and he wants to make his way inside the castle, but the impenetrable bureaucracy that controls the village from the castle makes any progress impossible. He has been summoned to survey the land, but doesn’t have the proper paperwork in order to proceed and nobody can tell him how to get things in order.

Sylvia Kratins and Melissa Keltie play various innkeepers, barmaids, messengers and townsfolk who seem to know only that the castle controls everything in the town, and suppose that things have always been the way they are at the moment (even something as changeable as the snow on the ground). They often make reference to the high castle official Klamm, who’s in charge but inaccessible, and whenever people say his name they look to the sky as if having a religious experience.

The two are always changing from one character to another, and the characters themselves change tempestuously to keep K. ever off guard. Keltie portrays a brutish landlord, a jolly messenger and his fretful young sister, and Kratins becomes the lusty bar mistress Frieda with whom K. becomes romantically entangled.

They also portray the childlike assistants assigned to K., who present themselves as the helpers he’s always had even though he’s never seen them before. The assistants never actually assist with anything but spend their time amusing themselves with games. Although one of them is named Jeremiah, K. decides to call them both Arthur “at great inconvenience to myself, because I will not be able to tell one from another.” Indeed, after a while both Arthurs are played by Keltie at the same time, playing patty-cake with herself.

Joe Jordan enters late in the show, after we’ve already become accustomed to the two women playing all the other characters. It’s clear from the start that there’s something different about him, as the others stand and shiver convulsively as he enters. Whether he takes on the role of Frieda’s haughty mother, the mayor or some other voice of authority, he’s always ordering K. around, and not with the vague air of scarcely knowing where he is that the other characters exude. He dictates how things must go with assuredness and urgency. From time to time he takes on someone else’s character, such as one of the Arthurs or the messenger Barnabas, and is told he’s not himself today. “Oh, I am myself, but more so,” he replies.

It’s increasingly clear that Jordan’s mystery man embodies the obstacles in K.’s way, as when the land surveyor starts to make the tiniest bit of headway, the other man narrates K. doing the opposite of what he’s set out to do until the two are locked in a struggle of contradictory narration.

There’s a lot of philosophizing in the play. K. even makes speeches about discontent while being beat up and declaims on the nature of freedom during a lover’s caress. The characters often narrate their own actions and reactions throughout. In one especially curious bit, K. occasionally does so in the third person and then pointedly corrects himself using first-person narration. It’s not entirely clear what this is intended to suggest, unless one of the less overt nods in the play to Kafka himself.

The parchment yellow floor of the set has patches of handwritten manuscript set into it. There are crumpled up handwritten pages in the corner, in the fireplace, on the mantel and in the wall sconces. The few props that come up–mugs or an old-style phone–are also covered in manuscript paper, and you can barely glimpse bits of handwriting on the actors’ skin at the edge of their sleeves or pant legs.

Just as the Soderbergh movie Kafka freely blended the author’s life with elements of The Castle, in Henne’s version of The Castle you can always glimpse the man behind the literary curtain. There are unsubtle references to other Kafka stories (“I am wearing a suit, not some hunger artist in rags”), and the ending is very much influenced by the fact that Kafka died of tuberculosis, leaving The Castle unfinished, ending in mid-sentence. It’s not an uncommon strategy, but aside from a few perplexingly abstruse moments (that are also in a way appropriate to the source material), it proves strikingly effective in A Man’s Home…. Having seen a considerably less polished ode to Kafka in the very same room a few years back, I’ll take Henne’s curious Kafkaesque Wonderland any day.

A Man’s Home…
Through March 13
Berkeley City Club
2315 Durant Ave.
Berkeley, CA

Show #15 of 2011, attended February 20.

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