Review: ‘The Trial’ at Synetic Theater

The creative, resourceful folk from Synetic Theater have made another date with an old friend and literary powerhouse, well beyond the “silent” Shakespeare for which it is justly known. The author is Franz Kafka (1883-1924). The Kafka literary work that Synetic has adapted this time around is The Trial, a tale of bureaucracy gone rogue. (Synetic produced The Metamorphosis in 2010.)

Shu-nan Chu. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

I was full of anticipation as I settled into my seat at Synetic’s Crystal City venue. The term Kafkaesque rolled through by brain. You know, the term about the unpredictability of modern life. Life in an impersonal bureaucratic state, full of surreal, suffocating predicaments and social isolation.

In an ambitious, dialogue-rich, clear-cut production of The Trial, adapted by Nathan Weinberger, Synetic takes the audience on a theatrical journey into Kafka’s literary world. Kafka’s words are there. The acting as directed by Paata Tsikuirshvili is sophisticated. The costumes (big applause to Erik Teague) that encase the Synetic cast into insects’ shells with neat antenna and some nifty hand attachments, totally divine. The scenic design is attractively wrought as a playing space by Daniel Pinha to include some stairways to Heaven. There is also understated mood music and crisp sounds (discordant music composed by Konstantine Lortkipanidze and Thomas Sowers, sound designer) along with efficient, generally restrained movement design by Irina Tsikurishvili.

And yet, alas, The Trial left me unmoved and tepid. It was as if a cog did not grab me to ratchet me up into a theatrical fantasy dreamed-up by Synetic. It was too bloodless, perhaps.

Synetic’s The Trial follows Kafka’s work about a man we first spot at his typewriter. And boom, for no apparent reason, this man is arrested by two officers of the State. His name is Josef K. Or “K” as the audience comes to know him. Over the intermission-free production, “K” struggles mightily to understand the “why” of his arrest. He is in disbelief from start to finish. He can think of nothing he did wrong that would lead to insect strangers (Chris Willumsen as Willem and Thomas Beheter as Franz) showing up at his apartment to take him away. Then again, the two sent by the State don’t know either, for they are too low on the food chain. They know nothing, only that they have been ordered to arrest “K.”

For “K” (portrayed lucidly, though a bit too pallidly indignant by Shu-nan Chu), the questions come quickly. Did someone slander him? Should he resist “The Law” and “The System?” If he decides to resist, how can he? And then there are the unasked questions about who and why are there talking cockroaches, flies, a man-eating praying mantis (Kathy Gordon who intones the phrase, “You belong to us now” with sangfroid), a caring though ineffectual butterfly (Tori Bertocci) and even an unexpected dog and other non-human forms.

Shu-nan Chu. Photo by Johnny Shryock.

Through six scenes, the audience gets to gander at what awaits “K” including bizarre dealings with clueless guards, uncaring bureaucrats, dismissive judges, and an untouchable Court with rules such as “It’s in the nature of this judicial system that one is condemned not only in innocence but also in ignorance.” There are also a vain, ineffectual lawyer who needs to suck blood to survive (priceless work by Ryan Tumulty on an electric scooter), an uncle accused of some high crimes and misdemeanors (Lee Liebeskind who does humiliation and false confessions oh so well), and more.

One scene in The Trial truly was a theatrical ripper called “Trapped.” In that scene, “K” is caged in an airless, translucent enclosure that brought frozen shivers of fear not only to “K,” but me too.

Yet, for me, The Trial was not sufficiently maddening as a black comedy. It was too clear-cut a door into Kafka’s world. It needed something more visceral and mysterious, less literal to hold me tightly to it. It was a chilly production that needed to turn up the heat to its emotional core to bring forth the dramatic action of a nightmare. Or have I gotten used to insects masquerading as humans running things in the real world?

Running Time: 100 minutes with no intermission.

The Trial plays through February 18 2018, at Synetic Theater – 1800 South Bell Street, in Crystal City, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

Note: This production is recommended for ages 14+ for mature content.

LINK: Magic Time!: ‘The Trial’ at Synetic Theater by John Stoltenberg