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Adapted by Steven Berkoff

It is probably The Trial that elevated “Kafka” from proper noun to adjective. In the 80 years since it was published, the novel has become cultural shorthand for the individual’s hopeless fight for identity against a faceless bureaucracy, and there hasn’t been a year since 1925 when its themes haven’t seemed perfectly relevant. Steven Berkoff’s dramatization of the book emphasizes that Joseph K.’s (Christopher Henley) real crime is simply resisting what happens to him: From the time Joseph is visited in his room by two bowler-hatted wardens who tell him he’s being arrested, his life is overtaken by his attempts to discover what the charges against him are and how he can make progress with his case through a labyrinth of courts and functionaries. But on some level, the formal charges merely externalize something that was already inside Joseph, who says, “I feel guilty already, but of what, I do not know.” After futilely demanding his rights, then considering whether the whole thing might be a joke on his 30th birthday, Joseph makes his fateful decision to follow “the natural train of events, do nothing, and see what transpires.” The Scena Theatre’s production encircles Henley with a chorus of judges who step forward to assume the various characters Joseph encounters. Director Robert McNamara choreographs, more than blocks, his cast through the dreamlike episodes of Joseph’s experience. At one point, they become a staircase, which might lead to an interrogation room; Joseph climbs up their backs. When Joseph is able to go to work at his bank, they become the clicking, whirring, swooshing machinery of the 20th-century office. One effective tableau puts grinning Huld, Joseph’s lawyer (Jim Zidar), under a pile of fawning, pawing clients and associates, radiant as a Santa Claus who might be able to reach into his big bag and pull out some long-awaited justice. The only respite Joseph knows is in the arms of three sirens (Jai Khalsa, Marua Stadem, and Svetlana Tikhonov) who all seduce, though ultimately refuse to comfort him. Kimberley E. Cruce’s black-on-black set consists of straight-backed chairs that both trap Joseph and serve as pedestals for his accusers. Alisa Mandel’s similarly bleak black-and-white costumes offer just occasional splashes of color—a red jacket on the unhelpful Inspector, a red belt or tie on a woman, a blue cap on the court portraitist. Henley infuses Joseph with sweaty desperation from the moment he realizes his breakfast is late to his last plea to the prison chaplain. Kafka’s famously unfinished book ends with Joseph’s death; Berkoff circles the play back to where it started, making clear his belief that man is ruled by his own institutions. An elderly Joseph stares at a door that separates him from the law, which he never has been, and never will be, able to pass through.—Janet Hopf