The name should be a tip-off. Franz Kafka’s Love Life, Letters and Hallucinations in Short Scenes with Live Actors is the sort of title that could be playfully anachronistic, but in fact it’s simply descriptive, and its unwieldiness turns out to be perfectly representative of Mae Ziglin Meidav’s play as a whole.
First performed by Subterranean Shakespeare in 1997 when it was more succinctly (if abstrusely) titled Franz/KAFKA, it has now been reworked and restaged by Meidav’s own company Brookside Repertory Theatre.
Because this is a fairly exhaustive biographical play that follows Kafka from childhood to deathbed, there’s a lot of expository dialogue in which people say, in essence, “Let me tell you in a few broad strokes what sort of person I am and what role I am to play in this drama.” Much of the rest consists of philosophical debates and declarations. “It is you who puts the holy script under the tongue of the golem,” Brod tells Kafka, and it’s no clearer what he means in context than out of it.
There are some clever lines here and there, but the bulk of it is ponderous, and so voluminous that it all comes out in a seemingly endless jumble of Kafka’s zeal for letter-writing, tuberculosis, zest for large breasts, fear of his father, Zionism, disgust with sausages, need to be mothered, anxiety about his writing, and girls, girls, girls.
The nightmare sequences from Kafka’s collected works are just silly. A clerk scurries along the floor in a horned paper mask that’s probably intended to be a cockroach. A scene from The Trial in which Kafka is dragged out to be executed is made more ridiculous by the high-pitched voices of the women behind the masks.
The show clocks in at a hefty two hours and forty minutes. The program lists 33 scenes by name. The cast of eleven is curiously large when it’s rare to see more than two or three people on stage at a time, and the succession of women in Kafka’s life don’t overlap much. Even with doubling of roles and actors watching on the sidelines and standing by to assist in scene changes (which are quick and efficient, but so numerous that they exacerbate the length regardless), two of the actors don’t show up until well past the two-hour mark.
There are interesting elements to John McMullen’s staging. Remi Barron and Jaene Leonard as Kafka’s parents are in bed when the audience enters, walking around them to take its seats in the Berkeley City Club’s intimate theater in the round. Accompanied by a slide show of the people in Kafka’s life, the set consists mostly of a blue door in the corner of the room that represents everything from the locked door of Kafka’s childhood room to the guarded door to the Law in the central parable of The Trial. In the second act “the Law” is changed to “the Kaballah,” but aside from Kafka being Jewish it’s unclear what mystical Judaism has to do with anything.
As Kafka, Carson Creecy is jittery, squeaky-voiced, and generally intolerable to be around. He’s like Crispin Glover in Willard or Renfield in Dracula, only more off-putting. It’s hard to tell when he starts cracking up, because he seems to come pre-cracked. Julia Heitner’s delivery is so flatly recitative as first love Felice that it takes a while to register that she’s actually supposed to be a wet blanket.
Barron has a mild, curmudgeonly charm as Kafka’s father that makes Kafka’s fear of him perplexing. Both he and Leonard use vaguely Slavic accents that no one else has, maybe to show that they’re from the old country — the same one they’re all still in. Leonard addresses her adult son with a playful girlishness that would make Freud squirm. The fact that the same performer also plays a vampy actress who gives him a hand job under a table only makes it more disturbing.
McMullen’s production is characterized (or caricaturized) by an exaggerated acting style. It’s unclear whether the effect is intended to be farcical, expressionistic, or just as transparent as possible to make sure the audience gets it. Rosa Threlfall as Kafka’s prodigiously padded wet nurse accentuates her awkward pauses to a cartoonish degree to hammer home the impression that there’s something going on between her and Kafka’s dad. While Lia Metz generates some heat as Felice’s friend Grete in her scenes with Kafka, her scheming coyness is so overstated that she may as well be carrying a neon sign reading “I’m out to steal your man.”
It’s not so much individual acting choices as the tone of the whole show that’s pitched much too high, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anything that looks much like human behavior in it. It’s unclear whether all these stage shenanigans are intended to complement Meidav’s stilted dialogue and surreal interludes, or compensate for them.