Iím OK, Youíre Josef K.

by Paul Kosidowski | Thursday 4/3/2008

Something in my personal zeitgeist has declared this the year of Puppets Having Sex. A few weeks ago, there was Miss Piggie-style cavorting in Avenue Q. Shortly after that, I finally caught up with Trey Parker and Matt Stoneís Team America on DVD (think marionettes doing R-rated James Bond). And now, thereís the Milwaukee Mask & Puppet Theatreís The Ballad of Josef K., an adaptation of Franz Kafkaís The Trial.

Kafka, of course, is a much more serious affair. The production, directed by First Stage Childrenís Theatreís Rob Goodman, captures all the absurd horror of the novel. Dean Holzmanís set is a potent evocation of the maze of hallways and hidden rooms evoked there. The music, written and played live by the Minneapolis band Thunder in the Valley, has just the right blend of country musicís dark heart and Kurt Weillís slinky sexuality. John Schneiderís script tells the story with efficient dispatch and ratchets up the sex and violence to suit contemporary mores.

There are no overt story adjustments to refer to Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, but there neednít be. Itís all too clear why this is a story for our time. Samsonís characters, mostly human-scale bunraku puppets that are manipulated by black-clad puppeteers, express both the power and powerlessness demanded by the story. The judge is 15 feet of flowing robes topped with the face of a graying Southern gentleman whose single sleepy eye suggests he likes his bourbon. The bank employees are gleefully suburban bland. And Josef K. himself bears a striking resemblance to his creator, Franz K.

By turns harrowing, ludicrous and tender, Josef K. is certainly one of the most original pieces of theater in recent memory. It deserves much bigger audiences than the Vogel Hall crowd last Saturday. Letís hope the word gets out.