Theatre de la Jeune Lune
Franz Kafka and Theatre de la Jeune Lune go together like milk and honey. Both leave the “normal” world behind when telling their stories. Both make pointed political and social comments in their works. And both want to thrill and confound the audience, sometimes in the very same moment.
All of that is present in Amerika, or the Disappearance, which opened last week at Jeune Lune’s downtown Minneapolis theater. The 100-minute adaptation takes us to a vastly different world, it does make comments on our society, and it does thrill and confound - often at the same moment.
Even for Kafka, Amerika is a difficult work to adapt. Written in the years leading up to World War I, Amerika was eventually abandoned by the author and left unfinished at his death in 1924. The book sketches out the story of Karl Rossmann, a German teenager forced to emigrate to the United States after a bit of an affair with a servant. What he finds, however, isn’t our America. Kafka never visited North America and instead used research and his own active imagination for his book. That’s clear early on, when Karl talks of the statue of Lady Liberty - holding a sword high into the air.
What follows is a picaresque journey through the Amerika of Kafka’s imagination. Karl has a dizzying series of adventures, while never truly finding his purpose - or a job or even a skill. He drifts downward, starting with a rich uncle and then to a rich friend of the uncle, and then to being a drifter, a bellboy, a “slave” and finally becoming nothing.
Jeune Lune stays with the meat of the narrative, following Karl from point to point in his journey. Along the way, they engage in some of their distinct play - from a multi-media chase through the vast halls of Mr. Green’s mansion to a quick journey through Karl’s English and etiquette lessons at his Uncle’s house.
Like his aviator in The Little Prince, Nathan Keepers’ Karl wanders through his existence with a startled look on his face - as if he has just woken up for the first time in the world. Keepers never finds a center for Karl, and that’s good. It’s a character whose drift through life is ingrained right down to his genetic code.
Apart from Karl, the key characters here are Delamarche and Robinson, two drifters Karl meets in the rural byways outside of New York. They make for a particular sinister double act, and Steven Epp and Luverne Seifert make great work of these characters. Again, the audience is left out of sorts - we are never sure if they mean to befriend the young drifter or kill him in his sleep.
According to the program notes by director Dominique Serrand, the production evolved from its original run at the American Repertory Theatre, and discovered “we had worked too hard to be faithful to the page.” Since then, the company has worked to free their Karl from the text. But I don’t think this production has taken it far enough. A tighter script that relied on the absolute absurdity of Karl’s plight would do much to draw the audience even further into the confusion and sense of loss that lies at the heart of Amerika (and it could also free them of the book’s final chapter, which doesn’t sit well with the rest of story).
Regardless, Amerika takes the audience on an unexpected journey into our own backyard - one that has been transformed by forces beyond our knowing into something unfamiliar. The best moments of Amerika last long after the show’s sudden final blackout, as they invade peaceful dreams.
Amerika, or the Disappearance runs through March 5 at Theatre de la Jeune Lune, 105 N. 1st St., Minneapolis. For tickets, call 612-333-6200 or visit www.jeunelune.org.