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The Castle

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Much of Franz Kafka's work depicts bleak struggles that end in hopelessness and hardship instead of success and adolation. Like the majority of his prose work, The Castle was no different and, though it remained mostly unfinished at the time of his death, contained many of the same themes of struggle and helplessness against an unfathomable cause.

The Manhattan Ensemble Theater, however, has taken a chance with their stage adaptation of The Castle, now playing at their new theater on Mercer Street. The MET's artistic director David Fishelson and Aaron Leichter have translated and adapted Max Brod's 1950s German Stage adaptation into a dark comedy, and turned the results over to the capable hands of William Atherton and Scott Schwartz.

Atherton and Schwartz themselves seem to be working hand in hand at making the evening work. Atherton is the star and Schwartz is the director, and both seem to be on the same wavelength throughout the evening. Schwartz's simplistic yet effective staging is a strong complement to Atherton's intense performance, and the star's movements (or lack thereof) work strikingly with the pace Schwartz has established on the production.

For his part, Schwartz, who has demonstrated his inventiveness and versatility Off-Broadway in the recent productions of Bat Boy and tick, tick...BOOM! takes what could easily be leaden and heavy-handed, and makes it buoyant and entertaining. The world of his characters, equal parts tragedy and comedy, is always moving, and with Anna Louizos's gleaming sets, an effective balance (or imbalance) between reality and surreality is always maintained.

Atherton is very likable in his role as K, the land surveyor hired by the Castle, but who apparently can never enter it, or even get straight answers about his job from anyone who does. Everything he does seems of paramount importance, whether doors are closing or opening in front of him. Almost never offstage, Atherton provides a strong anchor for the production, giving a commanding performance.

Sean McCourt, in dual roles as an innkeeper and one of K's bureaucratic obstacles, is humorous, in a light way much different from Atherton, while sacrificing little of the intensity. Jim Parsons and Grant James Varjas as K's assistants, and E. J. Carroll as his messenger Barnabas provide some strong comic relief. K's wife Frieda is unconvincingly portrayed by Catherine Curtin, but the other major female role, that of the Innkeeper's Wife, was solidly covered by understudy Gina Farrell at the performance I attended.

But what each member of the cast and the creative team has accomplished is something that K himself, in his own world, cannot. They have made The Castle accessible and worthwhile to everyone.

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Manhattan Ensemble Theatre
Franz Kafka's The Castle
Dramatized by Max Brod, adapted by David Fishelson and Aaron Leichter
Through February 17
Running time: 90 minutes
Manhattan Ensemble Theatre, 55 Mercer Street at Broome
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Tele-Charge