By Hugh Iglarsh
At a time when pop culture often seems like the only game in town, First Floor Theater’s annual literary festival is a refreshing reminder of drama’s richer possibilities. For the third year in a row, the Wicker Park-based troupe is commissioning local playwrights to create short works inspired by a literary master, which will be presented together for a short mid-August run. It was the Brothers Grimm in 2013; last year, it was Mark Twain’s turn.
This year, eight established and emerging Chicago dramatists—Marylin Campbell, Kristiana Colon, Amanda Fink, Skye Robinson Hillis, Ike Holter, Karen Kessler, Brett Neveu and Ariel Zetina—will be taking on the tormented Mittel-European Jewish writer Franz Kafka, who gave us not only his hauntingly enigmatic novels, tales and aphorisms, but also the adjective Kafkaesque, describing the individual’s experience of the opaque, alienated and labyrinthine reality that constitutes modernity. In such works as “The Metamorphosis,” “The Trial” and “The Castle,” Kafka used a deadpan and dreamlike writing style to capture the chronic, subtle strangeness of life within godlike systems and institutions, whose agendas can be neither comprehended nor resisted. He is the prophet of a propagandized and surveilled state, at least as relevant in the era of Gitmo and Snowden as he was in the nineteen-twenties, when the world was convalescing after one catastrophe and slouching toward a worse one.
With its cheeky title and sociable, hipster-friendly environment, “Kafkapalooza” is an attempt to introduce the writer—who died in 1924 at the age of forty—to a youthful crowd likely more familiar with Dexter than Joseph K., protagonist of “The Trial.”
“Our goal is to make it an enjoyable time,” says artistic director Hutch Pimentel. At the same time, he and LitFest co-curator Jesse Roth emphasize that the evening of eight one-acters on Kafka’s life and work, with eight different directors, will be inherently Kafkaesque: “It’s all about being trapped, about wanting to break out of a system or place,” says Roth. “We’ll be presenting the show in a small space, with essentially no way out.”
While not all the adaptations are explicitly political, the playwrights are making use of Kafka (who himself loved and was inspired by the Yiddish theater of his native Prague), in order to “respond to our cultural climate,” according to Pimentel. In his oblique and sometimes mystical way, Kafka expresses frustration with a society “that’s not changing fast enough to keep up with our ideals, in terms of human rights and basic freedoms,” comments Roth. Kafka’s work is all about the tension between surface enlightenment and a barely concealed, primal barbarism. “Lies are made into a universal system,” muses Joseph K.
And this was many decades before Fox News.
If the Kafkapalooza playwrights have anything in common, it’s admiration for the writer’s ability to see through the lies, confront the horror and refuse to compromise with the world. Hillis says she was most struck by this quote: “Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your own most intense obsessions mercilessly.”
Neveu says that what most appeals to him in Kafka’s work is the “ambiguity and gray-into-dark of it all.” In Kafka’s short sketches, notes Neveu, “Time seems to disappear and the reader or audience can plug into the images and ideas held within.”
Similarly, Zetina observes that the philosophical content of Kafka’s work “challenges the concept of what narrative and conflict should be—he has the ability to discuss huge concepts without saying much.”
Kafka’s vision of by-the-book dehumanization—as exemplified by “In the Penal Colony,” a tale of industrialized torture that reads like a script for Abu Ghraib and elsewhere—becomes more disturbing over time, as existence is increasingly shaped and mediated by technology. Says Fink: “The less we can disengage from our social circles, from our jobs, from capitalism, the more plugged in we are, the more much of his work and the underlying themes speak to us on a day-to-day level.”
Here’s hoping that “Kafkapalooza” achieves what the author saw as the goal of literary art, to be “an ice axe that breaks the sea frozen inside us.” Kafka’s ability to shift our perceptions—to make the weird seem normal and the normal weird—is more important now than ever before, sharpening our awareness of the contradiction between outward spectacle and inner truth. Asked what Franz would think about the year 2015, Pimentel and Roth exclaim together, “He’d say, I told you so.”
First Floor Theater, Collaboraction’s Pentagon Theater at the Flatiron Arts Building, 1579 North Milwaukee, third floor, (312)857-6406, firstfloortheater.com, $15. August 15-22.