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Franz Kafka Is Transformed Into a Regular Guy By Run of the Mill

KAFKAESQUE: Brian Oakes gets pulled this way and that

By Bret McCabe | Posted 6/28/2006

Turn Your Head and Kafka

By Laura Ridgeway

At Loyola University’s McManus Theater through July 8

Run of the Mill Theater inaugurated two beginnings with its opening-night performance of Laura Ridgeway’s Turn Your Head and Kafka. First, it kicked off the 25th annual Baltimore Playwrights Festival that continues at area community theaters throughout the summer. And it marked the departure of Run of the Mill artistic director Jim Knipple and signals the first Mill production under the leadership and direction of company member Jenny Tibbels.

New leadership hasn’t dulled Run of the Mill’s edges one bit. Ridgeway’s three-act Kafka is a time-jumping, imaginative exploration of the intellectually and sensually charged relationship between the titular German-speaking Jewish writer and the Catholic Milena Jesenská, a relationship that existed almost exclusively through letters written from 1919 to 1923. They briefly met at a Prague café when a young Jesenská was already married to the older Ernst Pollak, who took her to live in Vienna. Jesenská contacted Kafka by mail after reading his story “The Stoker,” asking to translate it into Czech. They met in person but twice during the next four years, but their correspondence reveals a passionate, sophisticated intimacy.

Working from that correspondence Ridgeway threads together an impressionistic version of their relationship, needling in and out of their personal lives into imaginative tangents that insert Franz Kafka into situations similar to his stories—specifically, The Trial. It’s a delicate balancing act—scenes cut away from one story line to another midact, only signaled by a quick change in the stage lighting, and characters often bleed like spilled ink from one scene into another. But it’s one the nimble cast gamely manages, turning the high-concept belletrist narrative into an absurdist comedy.

Credit Ridgeway and actor Brian Oakes for making this Kafka an active spirit. The mind’s-eye image of Kafka, like many writers, is almost entirely formed by his writings, and cinematic versions of the Kafka protagonists—from Anthony Perkins in Orson Welles’ The Trial to Jeremy Irons in Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka—are squirrelly, squirming, neurasthenic men intellectually intrigued but systemically picked away by the predicaments life throws at them. Oakes’ Kafka is lively, active, and flabbergasted—he’s sick but not sickly, emotionally sensitive but not socially withdrawn. He expresses a sympathetic exasperation when he’s awoken in his bed and summoned to appear before the inspector to be told that he’s been arrested—though not for what. He’s touching and vulnerable in his letters to Jesenská. And while Oakes occasionally closes his eyes too often when beginning his lines, he infuses his Kafka with a fleshy purposefulness, shirking the tortured-artist stereotypes of the dying young/chronically ill and turning the Kafka into an overwhelmingly decent if flawed man who is dealing—with a gradually worsening illness, with falling in love with a married woman—as best he can.

Julia Brandeberry’s Jesenská is a more difficult role. As the far-off woman receiving and responding to Kafka’s missives, it’s too easy to permit her to become an idealized woman in Kafka’s eyes. Plus, Brandeberry spends most of her stage time solo, voicing Jesenská’s letters to Kafka or reading his aloud, interacting with Kafka only tangentially in an imaginative dream space between Kafka’s Prague and her Vienna. Brandeberry shoulders this flying-solo performance with aplomb, cagily playing a woman capable of intellectually challenging Kafka with her own writing and admitting the limbo of being both in love with Kafka and her husband without becoming too much of a cliché.

The six other cast members, in multiple roles, provide madcap whimsy to offset the Kafka-Jesenská longing. Courtney Weber and Kionne Agent play the wards who show up to arrest “Franz K.” like Edward Albee versions of Chip and Dale, rifling through a series of nonsensical pleasantries and uninformative answers to Kafka’s questions while they rummage through his apartment and deign to eat his breakfast. Weber also gamely plays the usher’s wife, a wanton woman cuckolding her husband because it sounds, to her, like the only bureaucratically wise thing to do. Best of all is a wiry Eric Berryman in small roles as the usher and inspector. Berryman’s timing and delivery of Ridgeway’s comically convoluted dialogue—“You are under arrest,” the inspector informs Kafka, “but that should not hinder you from the rest of your life”—is spot on.

Kudos to director Tibbels and the stage crew for a relatively smooth and succinct production. Intrascene temporal and location shifts are never easy to navigate on starkly decorated sets, and Turn Your Head and Kafka leapfrogs through its vaguely experimental, corkscrewing narrative with a wry agility and little collateral confusion, making for a streamlined, hourish-long literary comedic treat.

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