"Time in Kafka," as a character tells us in Len Jenkin's play that uses those three words as its title, is circular: "every moment leads back to itself." Of course, being Kafka—one of the more famous literary figures with a name that converts to adjective when the suffix "esque" is applied—the circle isn't perfect.
Unexpected detours, surreal encounters and lessons learned in convoluted ways don't even begin to cover it. And in Jenkin's Time in Kafka, now having its world premiere at Undermain Theatre, don't be surprised if the detour includes an out-of-nowhere song-and-dance number.
Kafka with flash mobs? Hey, it makes more sense in a Kafka context than it does when you encounter one at the mall. (Or, if you're a mall person, then maybe not.)
A play like Kafka is sort of like Leap Day, in that it doesn't come around that often. Unless you're an Undermain regular, where Jenkin is a favorite playwright. If you saw the most recent two works of his done there, Margo Veil: an entertainment and Port Twilight, or the History of Science, then Time in Kafka will seem a little too familiar.
Granted, none of these works will remind you of much you've seen before, and that's where Jenkin and the Undermain score. Even if this one isn't the most satisfying bit of entertainment the Undermain has served up, it's original—or at least that dreaded word "interesting"—and absolutely beautiful to look at.
In Kafka, which is directed by Katherine Owens, Jay Spellman (Teddy Spencer) is a professor of comparative literature at a college where the dean admits that the freshman are more suited to studying Orwell than Kafka, who Spellman likes to teach. So he loses his job, and having had a major life change, does some crazy things.
After seeing Franz Kafka in a dream in which the writer tells the professor that there's an unpublished manuscript hidden in a mental hospital in an Italian coastal town, Spellman takes off without giving his wife Diane (Jessica Cavanagh) much of an explanation. She later follows his trail. Spellman figures that if he can find the manuscript (which would likely be unfinished), and have it published, then his reputation as a Kafka scholar would be made.
In Italy (and on his journey there), he encounters all kinds of quirky characters. They include the mysterious Harold Boothby (Anthony L. Ramirez), his lady friend Charlotte (Martha Harms) and Count Fosco (Ricco Fajardo). In the clinic, where Spellman stays, there's the Romanian fortune teller Principessa Sturdza (Anne Beyer), the delicate Anna (Rachel Werline) and the aged General Devries (Dennis Raveneau); not to mention Dr. Hartungen (Paul Taylor) and the clinic staffers who make it seem like a hotel of the California variety, where you can checkout anytime you like, but you can never leave. Those would be maid Emilia (Shannon Kearns-Simmons) and a fussy desk clerk (played by Blake Hackler, who also makes an appearance as the spirit of Kafka).
The imagery in Jenkin's language is vivid, such as recurring themes of living creatures in cages/traps submerged underwater, or descriptions of fig vendors. We don't have to be told later that time in Kafka ends up where it begins because that's what happens here.
The design, with set by John Arnone, costumes by Giva Taylor, sound by Bruce DuBose (including original music) and projections by Jeffrey Franks, puts us in this hyperreal world. One particularly lovely technique uses a blue-lit dining table to evoke water, as actors puppeteer boats on it.
But lest you think that it's all high-brow, we're thrown lines about "ferocious les-bots" and presented with those flash mobby sequences with pop-video choreography. Most are peppy and silly, but the best features Kearns-Simmons crooning Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night."
These diversions are fun, but they're also where Time in Kafka goes astray, despite a mostly likable cast, especially Hackler, Harms and the affecting Werline. Along with its commentary on the pursuit of passion, the play has something to say about how a major life change, like a job loss, can shock us out of reality. But as the show juxtaposes an intimidating subject like Kafka with pop culture-friendly sensibilities, it starts to feel precious.
And that's probably not an adjective that anyone who uses "Kafka-esque" has in mind.