by John Stoltenberg
(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)
The gaunt and haunted figure of Franz Kafka obsessed the renowned Polish poet, novelist, and dramatist Tadeusz Różewicz (1921-2014). His two-act play The Trap—part expressionistic, part realistic—poetically thrusts Kafka’s anxieties and nightmares front and center. First published in 1982, The Trap as translated by Adam Czerniawski is now getting its U.S. premiere in an imaginative and fittingly Kafkaesque staging directed for Ambassador Theater by Hanna Bondarewska.
In the lobby a short preshow scene plays out: Inside a cage labeled “Hunger Artist,” the actor who will play Franz (a lean and anguished Matthew Lindsay Payne) rants about why he is starving: as a political rebuke those who overconsume. (Kafka did himself write a story called The Hunger Artist, and Różewicz loosely based a play upon it.) Nearby stand ominously authoritative figures in long black trench coats and dark glasses who usher us into the theater.
More of a fan’s fantasia on Kafka’s life than a fact-based biography, The Trap is an ingenious amalgam of lively sketches and punchy scenes. Among them are episodes from Kafka’s childhood with his overbearing Father (a fearsome Colin Davies), incidents from his serial courtships with women to whom he could not commit—Felice (Morganne Davies), Grete (Ariana Almajan), and Jana Slowik (Abigail Ropp)—and badinage with his best friend Max Brod (a robust Benjamin Koontz). (It was the real Max Brod whom Kafka made promise to burn his writings upon his death but who, recognizing their worth as literature, preserved them instead. Were it not for Brod’s posthumous betrayal, we’d have bupkis of Kafka.) Flash-forwarding in time, The Trap also shows scenes evoking the Holocaust and imagining Kafka’s family being caught up in it (though their lifetimes were actually earlier).
Ambassador Theater is known for importing edgy and important European dramatic literature to DC, and The Trap is its biggest production yet; usually the company’s runs are in smaller venues. The set designed by Carl Gudenius consists of large trapezoidal panels on casters and heavy wooden boxes that, along with other furniture, the actors heave and maneuver into different positions to set each successive scene. The angular, expressionistic flexible playing spaces created thereby are impressive and visually striking—though the scene changes themselves at times seemed to take longer than the scenes in between. These pace-slowing intervals did, however, have an upside: They provided opportunities to appreciate the exquisite incidental music that was specially scored for this production by Jerzy Satanowski.
An eminent Polish composer with whom Bondarewska has collaborated before, Satanowski has created an extraordinary musical environment that like the play is also an imaginative amalgam—piano, cello, percussion, and assorted other effects evoking bubbling and circuses and a world of wonder all its own. Rarely during a play do I think to myself, as I did during The Trap, that I wished I could listen to its music cues again and again.
What this mounting lacked in momentum it more than made up for in layers of momentous meaning. Among them is the luminous performance of Alexander Rolinski, who plays Young Franz as well as a character identified as Animula, which means “little soul.” The boy has but one scene with dialogue, sick in bed cared for by his nanny Josie (Ariana Almajan). But during many other passages this little soul moves about, unseen by other characters, as if in silent witness to the inner torment of the elder Franz. In Rolinski’s expressive face can be read a fascinating perspective on the play we are watching: It is the point of view of the inner child who necessarily stays alive in every great artist—and who is here made transparent through the inner life of a exceptionally promising young actor.
Another rich layer of meaning in The Trap is the puzzling and provocative relationship between Różewicz and Kafka, which I found myself pondering all evening. Is Różewicz somehow playing Boswell to a Johnson here? Is Różewicz appropriating and riffing on another artist’s life as if to extoll it but actually to undermine it by insinuating himself into his subject’s aura vicariously? Is Różewicz actually putting Kafka in his place, thereby ennobling himself?
These speculations were prompted by the odd way the character of Kafka is written in the script of The Trap. Pretty much everyone in Kafka’s life bluntly calls him out on his character defects. Not only does young Franz get damagingly critiqued by his distant and judgmental father (who in a biblical nightmare scene that Franz dreams plays Abraham about to slay his son). Franz also gets dissed by the several women he courts who (somewhat unaccountably) fall in love with him, as well as his best bud Brod, who (somewhat unaccountably) is genuinely fond of him. They all have his number dead on: Franz can’t relate to reality; he’s got lousy social skills; he doesn’t reciprocate their regard for him; he’s a self-obsessed downer and a drag. Basically the script offers little in the way of redeeming features for its central character, unless you remind yourself, Oh right, the historical figure this dude is based on wrote some amazing shit. The upside of this textual vacuum is that it thrusts a provocative dynamic between author and main character front and center. The downside is that the play as written offers an audience little reason to care about the main character or what happens to him.
Well, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but I overstate this case in order to point out that the role of Franz as written is a heckuva challenge for an actor. That actor has to overcome the script’s negativity about the character and portray someone we’ll enjoy the company of long enough to hang with for a couple hours. Matthew Lindsay Payne rises to the challenge commendably. His agile performance is characterized by lots of sudden tone and mood swings—like, really abrupt, as if he’s switching among multiple personalities. This has the salutary effect of conveying Kafka’s inner conflicts while at the same time opening opportunities for the actor to bring to the role his own personable, attractive, and charming qualities—all of which the historical Kafka sorely lacked.
This production is large scale also in the size of its cast, which besides those named above includes Madeline Burrows, John Brennan, Marlowe Vilchez, Emily H. Gilson, Peter Orvetti, Melissa B. Robinson (gripping as Franz’s long-suffering mother), and Ed Klein (who gave a particularly shattering turn in a brief barbershop scene). Sigridur Jonnesdottir’s costume designs, especially for the women actors and the boy, were really lovely to look at. (I did not observe the multimedia projections designed by Riki Kim, which I’m told were not working the night I saw the show; Michael Stepowany’s lighting also seemed to be operating uncertainly. I have no doubt that will all be fixed.)
Franz Kafka looms over world literature; the mark he made is both indelible and enigmatic. By putting this writer’s troubled persona front and center—as seen through the eyes of a poetic writer distinguished in his own right—The Trap offers us a unique opportunity to reflect on this fascinating figure. And Ambassador Theater’s production plays the compelling and complex portrait to the hilt.
Running Time: Two hours 40 minutes including one intermission.