CALL THE VISIONARIES at Entertainment Weekly, here's the headline: Alienation Is In. Get Arby's on the phone--how about a commemorative cockroach glass tie-in?Yeah, we've got a Kafka trend on our hands. All that may be overkill, for now at least, but when three separate homages to Franz Kafka turn up in the same week--the Guthrie Theater's K, the short film Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life, and the comic-lit story-takes Give It Up--one begins to suspect a conspiratorial marketing synergy of Disneyesque proportions.

Indeed, Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life (no relation to Bram Stoker's Dracula or Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) is the kind of subversive, fun-for-the-whole-family movie that Disney could have made under the auspices of erstwhile contractee Tim Burton. Richard E. Grant (Withnail and I) is positively squeamish as everyone's favorite neurasthenic German/Czech writer, struggling to complete the first sentence of The Metamorphosis: "Boy wakes, boy is bug." The gag plays itself out nicely with the discovery of the missing Jiminy Cockroach, and some oddball Christmas caroling (Kafka was a Jew, but this is nitpicking). Recently closed at the U of M Film Society, Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life should rightly be appearing any day now alongside all 20 copies of Dumb and Dumber at your local video outlet. But Kafka never put much faith in a just world.

Joseph K, the chief clerk of a large bank, has all kinds of trouble getting justice in K, the Guthrie's extraordinary interpretation of Kafka's The Trial, returning to the Guthrie on First after a lauded February preview. Waking one day to find himself arrested for unspecified crimes by two bullying warders of an unnamed kangaroo court, K is drawn into a widening maze of officers, magistrates, and fellow accused souls.

The play's action often unfolds in partial darkness, on spare sets surrounded by an evolving configuration of black scrims and invisible portals. First staged by director Garland Wright some 18 years ago, this production was created and scripted in a series of company improvisations and exercises. All 11 cast members take turns wearing K's black suit and red lapel carnation, each playing the character with the same tentative, upturned hand and strained voice. The effect is uncanny.

K, like The Trial, pushes the audience to the edge of a metaphysical barrier. While Kafka never finished the book (and, in fact, gave explicit orders that it be burned after his death), he did intimate that there would always be higher courts and more distant magistrates beyond K's knowledge--magistrates, in a sense, beyond human reckoning. The Trial, as such, could never be finished. Where K resonates is in its trajectory as a work of discovery and self- knowledge. Joseph K doesn't merely wake up a wronged man, accused, like The A-Team, of a crime he didn't commit. Instead, he begins to notice an infrastructure of accusers that has always been there--relatives, lawyers, shady portraitists--all of whom are seemingly in the know. K chooses his guilt by keeping the trial alive, pressing for an innocence that is forfeited once he surrenders his total ignorance of the court.

While the discomfortingly icy stage interactions don't always illuminate the vicissitudes of Joseph K's consciousness (a passing knowledge of the book will probably prove useful), the stark visual surface of K is quite beautiful. This is the real thing.

Noted cartoonist Peter Kuper similarly favors surface and suggestion in his jittery and energetic illustrations of nine (often condensed) short-short stories, Give It Up (NBM Publishing). Many of Kuper's frames resemble woodcuts, with darkly outlined planar forms and high-contrast black-and-white-shadings. Facial expressions seem to rest naturally in two positions: one, the blank, ovoid gape of the callous masses (often floating in ghostly outline behind the tortured foreground figures); the other, the toothy leer of the sadist (of whom there are plenty). A Hunger Artist (carnival starvation performer is ignored to death), The Helmsman (stranger seizes helm of ship while the crew submits to his will), and Give It Up (cop accosts lost man on the street) are the finest in the collection--cartoon primers in displacement, malaise, and unease.

Writing in the introduction of Give It Up, fellow cartoonist Jules Feiffer identifies what might be at the heart of this mini-Kafka revival, comparing Kafka's "stoic Euro-alienation" to Kuper's "American rock'n'roll alienation": "Americans expect to be winners even as we lose, so we scream," Feiffer writes. "Central Europeans expect to lose, so they shrug. Kuper gives us the screaming shrug."

Listen, Franz, we've got Hal Willner lined up to produce the tribute album; now if you could slap an ending onto The Trial with a more positive audience test response, we might be in business... CP

K runs at Guthrie on First through November 5; call 224-4222 for tickets and showtimes.

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