"If you don't want to be witnesses, stop looking at me!" The main character of Franz Kafka's The Trial breaks the fourth wall to bark this line at the audience. He speaks with such intensity that several heads turn sheepishly away before realizing the humor in such a command. The Trial, performed by members of the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, is a powerfully acted play that immerses you in its world: a corrupt, totalitarian government where you do as you are told and do not ask questions. When a Grand Judge demands order in the court from his chair towering over the stage, backs arch in attention as the audience forgets they are not in a real court being chastised by a real judge.
If only the same could be true for Joseph K (John Lenartz), the unfortunate protagonist of The Trial. One morning he is dragged out of bed, surrounded by strange men, and told he is arrested. What he is being arrested for neither he nor anyone else seems to know. Joseph K comes to the reluctant realization that an accusation, no matter how vague, is all it takes to start the justice system's wheels turning. Soon he is fighting not to prove his innocence but to put off the verdict of guilt. The longer he does, the longer he has to live, because no one is ever declared innocent.
As Joseph K's trial date approaches, his world closes in. Onstage, black wooden planks on wheels are used to show the walls inching closer. Open doorways turn to closed doors, and unoccupied space is rapidly filled with the muttering accused and shifty-eyed police. Characters often hide behind planks onstage, giving the impression that there is always someone listening even when you think you are alone. Creepy xylophone music signals each scene transition with a melody so eerie it sends shivers up your spine.
Sound plays a significant role in creating a suffocating mood. At Joseph K's bank, a line of identically dressed men take turns musically snapping dollar bills while the manager strikes a bell and Joseph K loudly stamps a document, all in perfect unison. The robotic movements that make this difficult melody possible are hypnotizing to watch and fearful to consider. Joseph K regularly bears witness to these mindless group movements but refuses to believe his world operates in the same manner. It is the scene-stealing artist, Titorelli, who sets him straight once and for all.
Titorelli, played to haunting perfection by Jason Crowl, destroys all hope of a happy ending emerging from behind black doors. With exotic dress, eerie facial expressions, and a deep, attention-grabbing voice, Titorelli embodies the sprit of absurdism with his every gesture. He rattles off Joseph K's options for freedom in great detail but finishes his speech with the devastating bottom line: guilt can never be avoided, never pardoned.
The moment where Joseph K embraces this truth as his fate is both the climax and the ending of the play. There is no time for the symbolism of his actions to be interpreted, contemplated, or discussed. He makes his decision, the Court does what it must, and both he and the audience are left stunned in the silent darkness that follows.
Those looking to put this play in a historical context can refer to Kafka's life in Eastern Europe, where totalitarian governments smothered many an innocent life. The Trial carries the theater of the absurd label, but what is absurd to one audience is truth to another. Governments like the one depicted in The Trial do exist, but they begin small, like a seed. The play is less about targeting the existing government than it is about identifying this seed and making sure it never grows into the horror you witness unfolding before you in The Trial.