The world is full of hope. But not for us,” Franz Kafka once replied to someone who questioned the “hopelessness” of his stories.
In Mae Ziglin Meidav’s play, Franz Kafka’s Love Life, Letters and Hallucinations, staged at the Berkeley City Club by her Brookside Repertory Theatre with the direction of John McMullen (who directed Romeo and Juliet for Berkeley Opera), there’s an episodic series of glimpses of that “hopelessness,” the contrary characteristics of Kafka’s tales, in scenes from the author’s life.
Meidav recalls writing a scene from an old photograph in a playwrights’ workshop, later realizing, when reading a biography of Kafka, that the scene expressed the novelist’s complex relationship with fiancée Felice Bauer. It has become one of the best of not a few comical vignettes, as a young photographer (Roy Landeverde), both discreet and frantic, tries to keep the couple (Carson Creecy and Julia Heitner) posed while they squabble.
In a long string of over 30 scenes, the cast of 12 reveals the ongoing obsessions and frustrations of the great author from Prague, occasionally heightened by hallucinations like tableaux in his tales.
In one, Felice becomes a mouse, while Franz shouts, “you can’t eat my stories; they’ll make you sick!” In another, a pretty young woman (Rosa Trelfall) in a fur coat and hat, from a photograph Franz has posted to his wall, enters and poses, smiling—then smothers Franz’s stream of speculative chatter with her muff.
Kafka’s tales are notoriously difficult to adapt to the stage or screen. Steven Berkoff’s stage productions (“Metamorphosis” with Baryshnikov as the bug) and films of The Trial by Orson Welles and “In the Penal Colony” by Raul Ruiz have taken a sometimes oblique perspective, sometimes a very literal one, regarding the original stories.
“My stories are full of autobiographical significance,” Meidav’s Kafka says, which for the writer himself may have been one reason he instructed his papers to be burned at his death.
Where the scenes come closest to allowing Kafka’s fictional grotesquery to act on the anecdotes of his life, stylizing them, the play works best. Many scenes, though, delve unwittingly into the slough of clichés from literary potboilers and biopics about tormented artists (recently burlesqued in another Ruiz film, Klimt).
The relentless chronology of the life also adds to the sameness of tone and rhythm that often plagues any long performance of a string of brief episodes. Meidav humorously thanks her colleagues for their editorial work, sparing the audience a much longer show. It would be interesting to watch a different arrangement of some of these scenes, perhaps with newer versions of some left out, with a different organizing principle—something more fantastic, dreamlike?—than following the events of Kafka’s life so linearly, inserting snippets of his work.
Such reflections come from suggestive moments: entering the theater to find the writer’s parents (Jaene Leonard and Remi Barron) in bed; seeing the streams of old photographs between scenes projected above Don Cate’s sets; watching Jaene Leonard’s comic turn as a Lola Montez-like actress bearding the maladroit Franz at a bistro table, a cabaret act in itself; and Brian O’Connor taking on multiple roles—one moment, a crude, Jew-baiting soldier, the next a Kabbalistic doorkeeper in black robes and periwig—with Remi Barron, alternately sympathetic and a martinet as Franz’s father, equally convincing.
Franz Kafka’s Love Life was performed about a decade or so ago by Subterranean Shakespeare, with Stanley Spenger—present in the opening night audience at the City Club—playing Franz.
FRANZ KAFKA’S LOVE LIFE, LETTERS AND HALLUCINATIONS
8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 5 p.m. Sundays through June 29 at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant St. $16-$24. (800) 838-3006. www.brooksiderep.org.