In the Kafka Colony Treats All Things Kafkaesque With a Light Touch

Few writers seem as possessed by genius as Franz Kafka, the Austrian insurance-company clerk whose nightly expeditions into the recesses of bureaucratic madness and erotic isolation created a vision complete unto itself. Few readers, including most of Kafka’s translators, have found much to laugh about in this literature of ascending anxiety. And yet, among those who have read him in the original German, Kafka is considered a deeply funny writer, an absurdist whose surreal portrayals of existential miasma tap into a wellspring of tragicomedy. So it is fitting that Open Circle’s current production of In the Kafka Colony, by local playwright Dustin Engstrom, treats all things Kafkaesque with a light touch.

Directed by Andy Justus, Colony draws heavily from the author’s best-known works, The Metamorphosis and The Trial. Structured as a series of vignettes, the play continually blends the stuff of Kafka’s imagination with what is known of his domestic reality, creating a kind of looking glass through which Engstrom investigates the autobiographical dimensions of art. Hence we have the anemic and self-absorbed Kafka himself, played with brooding intensity by Matt Dennie, as well as Kafka’s real-life friend and reluctant literary executor, Max Brod (Jeff Pierson). They strut and fret (mostly fret) onstage, alongside what are, essentially, symbolic personifications inspired by the author’s fiction: the Bachelor (Aaron Allshouse), the Father (John McKenna), the Pretty Girl (Gusta Johnson), and the Neighbor (Charles Crowley), among others. All of these characters, real and imagined—a distinction that often blurs in Kafka’s writing—cross and recross paths in a kind of boarding-house drama intent on highlighting some bedeviling aspect of Kafka’s work. The setup is pure situational comedy. Some of the references to Kafka’s published works are played for straight-up laughs, and his notoriously dark worldview is occasionally and affectionately lampooned.

The playfulness strikes a refreshing, admirable balance. With a little more than levity but something short of hard-nosed satire, Colony pokes respectful fun at all that is overly dark and abysmally labyrinthine in Kafka—or rather, in our accepted academic notions of him. Engstrom’s play works not to demythologize Kafka but to humanize him, to grant his lucubrations a comedic context that is understandable to anyone who has woken up feeling for all the world like a bug.

“Truth is inconceivable, and lies our sole responsibility.” So begins The Spinning, a new musical by local playwright Dashel Milligan, the prologue delivered in near-darkness by a cast member. The aphorism sounds remarkably similar to the famous last words of Hassan i Sabbah, an 11th-century Persian mystic and political revolutionary: “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” Both sentiments are so much cotton candy to would-be amoralists seeking to put a stamp of legitimacy on their outré habits. And The Spinning is certainly outrageous. Residing somewhere between the polymorphous perversions of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the swinging neo-vampirism of Anne Rice and Buffy, Milligan’s play unleashes a spectacle of sex, sin, and sadomasochism, all in the service of a basic tale about the primal power of love. The results are uneven. As spectacle, the play is hit or miss, though its various set pieces—fighting, dancing, dominance, orgies—are delivered with spirit and confidence. If there’s little here to truly shock or awaken the senses, the cast nonetheless does a good job of treating the material with a sense of discovery. And, as with most musicals, once you strip away the pageantry, the underlying story is almost reductive in its simplicity. This level of fable is where The Spinning proves most successful.

The story focuses on the erotic tug-of-war between Jackson (Dan Connor) and Gillian (Alyssa Keene). A troupe of immortal aliens—or vampires, or something; it’s never clear—manipulate the fates of Jack and Jill like a pantheon of temperamental and combative Greek gods. Led by the strutting alpha-deity Groll (Geoffery Simmons), these exotic demiurges divide themselves along the lines of a rift immemorial: There are those, the nasty nihilists, who don’t believe in the reality of love; and those, whether realists or romantics, who believe that love is the only true path to happiness. As these puppet masters hammer out their differences, scheming and backstabbing and moving back and forth between dimensions, Jack and Jill’s romance plays itself out on the earthly plane, a drama of the heart much like any other.

Directed by Jake Groshong, The Spinning is a fast and loose festival of bodies and ribald humor. The songs—written and composed by Milligan—are one of the play’s real strengths, with cellist Meredith Lagerman and Milligan on keyboards providing excellent accompaniment. Though there are few really strong voices among the cast members, altogether, the material is delivered with a rambling, shambolic energy that somehow works. The Spinning isn’t going to blow any minds, but there are worse ways to blow a couple of hours.