THE BALLAD OF JOSEF K.
The Milwaukee Mask & Puppet Theatre; at Illusion Theater through May 18;
Kafka's writing has aged so well because he took a long, excruciating look at the soul-deadening world of bureaucracy and order around him and proclaimed it the future. Based on The Trial, this puppet-based musical follows its source faithfully. Our man Josef (Jonathon Wainwright) enjoys a night of revelry to mark his 30th birthday, then while sleeping off its effects hears a knock at the door. Before he knows what's happened, he's accosted by two policemen (here with giant, lolling heads, a grotesque vision of authority) and taken into a neighboring apartment for interrogation. Matters go downhill from here. Josef doesn't know what crime he's been charged with, a courtroom scene takes place with a 10-foot-high judge puppet (Thomas Weissgerber), and a simulated puppet rape occurs on the courtroom floor. Josef's plight and mental state are abetted by music from Thunder in the Valley, clanging along with shades of Teutonic decadence and irony (the earnestness of a few of the songs clashes with the creepy tone established elsewhere, though the songs themselves are quite good). The puppeteers wear all black, including cowls over their heads, lending the production an uncanny quality (the puppet masters appear to be blind, just as justice is supposed to be). A frequently missed aspect of Kafka's writing is its dark, sardonic humor—his diaries reveal that he had a ripping ability to fire off a one-liner. Here writer John Schneider and director Rob Goodman provide a good dose of Kafka's twisted vision, from the pornographic notes Josef's judge creates while listening to his case, to an absolutely deranged musical number in a judicial waiting room that sparkles with glee over the crushing injustice all around. At times this show evokes dread and tedium, but that's sort of the point, and in the home stretch Josef is depicted as gradually diminishing in size until Kafka's parable of the law is delivered with queasy impact. You can believe in justice all you want, but you won't find it here.