25 June 2005: Lester, Amerika; or The Disappearance

American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, in association with Theatre de la Jeune Lune. After the novel by Franz Kafka. Directed by Dominique Serrand

Gideon Lester is associate artistic director of ART. He is a Britisher, thirty-five years old, former dramaturg of ART, and a translator and adapter of other works. There would seem to be some talent in this resumé, but this adaptation of Kafka’s novel is curiously and disappointingly lifeless. I have not read the novel and so cannot judge such questions as fidelity to the original idea. One can see in Lester’s text an effort to catch a sort of paranoid guilt on the part of the central character, Karl Rossman (Nathan Keepers), who was forced to flee his native Germany, leaving behind a servant girl who seduced him and is carrying his child; he arrives in America — called “Amerika” by Kafka to distinguish fantasy from reality (Kafka had never been to the USA at the time of writing the novel) — falls in with a lot of bad types, and sort of disappears. I say “sort of” because there is a kind of apotheosis — could we say dystheosis”? — at the end, in which Karl, dressed in a costume reminiscent of prison garb, is raised up into darkness and, yes, disappears. Perhaps Karl’s journey into the ether is supposed to be ineffably mysterious, but it is more like just plain perplexing. And the action up to that point seems purely episodic. We don’t sense any rationale or logic to the various encounters Karl has with American-style shysters and nogoodniks who are out to cheat him or fleece him and with whom he insists on making com­prom­ises that are quite demeaning or self-destructive.

What was the point of it all? Karl’s character seems entirely linear — he is a kind of existential Johnny OneNote, about whom we wish we could come to care, but we don’t. The other characters seem to be not really characters but just hollow roles (the Frenchman, the prostitute, the con man, the cook) who are there because Kafka had them in his novel and so Lester dutifully put them into his script.

The resources of the ART and its fine, well-equipped and very high stage are used, as one would expect, very well (the production standard is always high here). The result is a kind of theatricalist erector set of a stage, with tall scaffold­ing-like structures reminiscent of early twentieth-century mechanistic styles (“constructivist”), pressed into latter-day service here to suggest an oppressive, expressionistic environment in which people, especially the central character, are caught and rendered helpless, the prey of unnamed exterior forces that are there for no good. We can see off-stage, and at one point the con man Robinson (played by Thomas Derrah with his usual “watch me” mannered aplomb) can be seen at the extreme up-left point of the stage, half-way up the spiral staircase leading to the grid, drinking a martini. This is called “Theatricalism” in the text­books. And at a late point, in the penultimate scene, the characters drop out of character (to the extent that they have ever been in character) and meander about the stage, saying hello how are you to a bewildered Karl and a rather bored audience. So we are put on notice that this is all artifice. Thanks very much.

I should mention that there is a narrator character, played by Sarah Agnew — character name is Fanny — in a nearly neutral yet slightly sympathetic way that seems right for the part. At frequent intervals she catches us up on the plot, without commenting too much on it. I suppose this was Lester’s way of allowing the play to trail its fictional origins onto the stage. The problem in this case, how­ever, was that the format of a “story” partly narrated and mostly dramatized assumed that there was actually a story there; but the audience was never let in on what that story was. We were no less clueless about what was next, and why, than poor Karl himself. Is there something more than this in the novel? Is there humor in the novel, the humor generated by absurdity? I will have to read it some­day and find out. The publicity about the play suggested that the audience would find the play funny; but this audience, at least, did not. There was a cer­tain amount of grotesqueness to the proceedings, but it wasn’t really funny. There was a certain amount of physicality also, which spoke of the influence of Serrand, Artistic Director and co-founder of Jeune Lune. But it was finally all to no discernible purpose. Misconceived, misjudged, all of that effort, and some pretty good performances to boot, and nobody could care. Sad.

I should have mentioned that in the apotheosis scene Fanny, dressed in white and accompanied by other characters, is standing high on the downstage right scaffold watching Karl mount up to nothingness, and she is sporting a pair of wings on her back. We are going to be getting quotations from Kushner’s Angels in America for years now, I’ll bet. This is one of those “Get it? It’s Kushner! Get it?” things you expect in scripts by amateurs who feel impelled to go to con­sid­erable lengths to let you know how literate and savvy they are. Lester — and Serrand too — should know better.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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