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Franz Kafka undergoes a metamorphosis in Chaos production

If you have any history of performance anxiety, you will probably want to arrive at the theater for The Kafkamachine as early as possible. Simply getting to your seat is performance art in this theatrical installation, and the more of an audience there is, the more imperative it is that you know your cues.

It's hard to say whether The Kafkamachine will give you what you're after in an evening of post-modern adaptations of Franz Kafka's short stories. If you are looking for faithful recreations of the text, bringing the stories to the stage with any kind of linearity, you are in the wrong black box. The stories are abstracted from the original texts, excerpted, cut and pasted into a collage and performed, as artistic director Atomic Elroy says, "with our own surrealistic flair."

The production is a kind of Kafka to the nth degree, embellishing Kafka's tendencies to the surreal by immersing the audience in an atmospheric balancing act without offering a safety net. Kafka is everywhere in the performance space. His image is on the walls in quadruplicate. White books are everywhere, surrounded by black words. His text is literally strewn throughout the studio, pasted on the walls, scattered along the floor in big, bold type. And the mood is Kafka at its core.

The overall atmosphere is the most powerful aspect of the production, standing out in far greater detail than character, plot or dialogue. The setting and costumes suggest a kind of automated officescape, a bizarro world for dark Dilberts counting the hours of a humorless day. A prominent black-and-white clock center stage hooks the audience into checking it repeatedly for assurance that time is not standing still, that seconds are ticking by, offering the illusion that plot, perhaps, is unfolding. Paranoia fills the space from your first uneasy entrance onto the stage, the two principal characters already talking to each other through muffled telephone lines.

"I can't talk," says one suit, glancing around his office space with persecuted eyes.

"I can't listen," says the other.

Most of the lines are prerecorded, turning the actors into interpretative movers. When they do speak, the dialogue is filled with pregnant pauses, or, as we say these days, dimpled pauses. The entire production could be sponsored by the Ketchup Advisory Board, an hour and twenty minutes of anticipation, set to that diddling New Age music that lingers endlessly on the edge of resolution without ever going anywhere.

Though it isn't always easy to discern the movement through the text, there are enough distinct performance modes to distinguish one scene from another. "Before the Law" features an intriguing exchange between two matted masks, held by the actors about chest high, bringing lines to life the way a couple of dolls or toys might, given a child's animated direction. "The Metamorphosis," in which the caution that "the insect itself must never be depicted" is reiterated, is performed by a voice-over reading while a cast member gesticulates beneath a white sheet, distorting and transforming her shape and movement. "The Bucket Rider" makes good use of the glowing embers in an empty bucket of coal to build to a feeling of flying, and "In the Penal Colony" uses an overhead projector to re-create a horrifying machine that puts a prisoner's sentence in new perspective.

The Kafkamachine is not likely to be seen as escapist theater for many in the audience, but it is also not the kind of theater that challenges its audience on a level playing field. Chaos and Kafka keep the cards close to the chest, and the audience can either engage in the futile fight to find the play's inherent logic or simply give in to the ride. As Kafka himself reminds the audience in his program notes, the performances seem to be an abstraction of arbitrarily selected texts. His recommendation is to "purchase Joseph K's Mental Floss at the corporate commissary and to use it immediately."


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