K Street

Grim, hopeless, and very funny: A scene from Jeune Lune's 'Amerika'

Grim, hopeless, and very funny: A scene from Jeune Lune's 'Amerika'

Franz Kafka worked very hard to implement safety measures in turn-of-the-previous century Bohemian workplaces, particularly in the lumber industry. From his Insurance Institute desk, he also dreamed up the 20th century, with all its alienation, brutality, and cynical wonder. His unfinished novel, Amerika, saw the labyrinthine miniaturist turn visionary in fantasizing the broad shoulders of a country to which he never traveled. In Theatre de la Jeune Lune's interpretation for the stage, it is appropriately rife with ambition, humor, and an almost uncanny sense of the paradoxical exhilaration and tedium that Kafka's fiction provokes.

This show is visually stunning. Director Dominique Serrand oversees the set and video design, while Marcus Dilliard's lighting adds richness. At times the environs look like bleached brick, at others like a blackened void. Through video and ever-shifting set elements, the action goes from the city to the sea, to a hotel kitchen to a country house, with a constant and palpable sense of motion--in both the physical and the psychic sense.

The plot involves Karl (Nathan Keepers), who is exiled from his family in Europe and sent to the New World after impregnating a servant girl (in typical Kafka fashion, Karl's crime is essentially passive, his punishment arbitrary). He arrives at the home of his Uncle Jacob (Steven Epp, who collaborated with Serrand on fitting Gideon Lester's adaptation to the Jeune Lune stage), a haughty, assimilated success story who soon enough expels his nephew and consigns him to a picaresque road adventure.

By that time, we're steeping pretty strongly in Kafka's mental teapot. In Uncle Jacob we see shadows of Kafka's domineering and disapproving father Hermann, and when Karl subsequently travels to a country estate he is confronted by another powerful male, Green (Luverne Seifert, hilariously), a rootin'-tootin' American vulgarian whose sexy daughter Klara (Sarah Agnew) deals with him romantically the way a housecat deals with unwitting rodents.

There is tremendously evocative stuff here about the insecurity of the immigrant--Kafka himself, a Czech-born, German-speaking Jew living in the Hapsburg Empire, was a creature of ordinary life and routine, and, save for the final months of his life, never moved his residence from Prague. It is also safe to say he felt like an immigrant in his own home, and never felt as though he belonged anywhere. Keepers captures the alienation inherent in Kafka's work but also the sense of nervous apprehension that accompanies it. He's a consummate nebbish, eager to please, lacking in conviction and swept along by events. He is, in other words, the opposite of the idealized ambitious and self-sure American.

Karl's travels take him to the dark pastoral side of a country whose Lady Liberty holds a sword, and where a great bridge connects New York and Boston (if only in Karl's mind). He joins a couple of vagabond laborers, the French Delamarche and the Irish Robinson (Epp and Seifert, respectively). The pair is amoral and, in Delamarche's case, downright sinister (Epp plays him as a long-haired dandy with a world-wise smirk, perpetually sizing up Karl as though deciding which cut from his body to cook first). It is obvious that nothing good will come from the pair, and in a logic perversely typical of the work, Karl throws a hissy fit over nothing much and takes a job as an elevator boy at the surreally inviting Western Hotel (until Robinson ruins things for him, in an episode that is the runaway top contender for the best use of fake vomit on the Twin Cities stage this year).

For many, Kafka's name is a synonym for "grim and hopeless." That is wrong. Kafka was grim, hopeless, and very funny. This production gets that, and makes very good use of actors with fine comedic instincts (Agnew and Seifert, in particular). This version of Amerika comes in at less than two hours, with no intermission, much shorter and leaner than last year's premiere at Cambridge's American Repertory Theatre. One thinks this is a good thing, because the odd and unsettling psychic space it creates provokes amazement, revulsion, a measure of delight, and moments of static claustrophobia that are marked by the pleasure felt when they cease. That Kafka. I'll bet he was no good at parties, but great at making up one-liners once he got home.