All the other actors on stage get stranger and stranger as the night goes on: Teresa Dogget is the well-connected aunt of K (Mr. Ledbetter), and a mad merger of Lady Bracknell and every Disney villainess, opening the door to K's fighting against a mysterious government case. Sally Eaton plays his lawyer, a senior "cougar," adding an unwelcome layer of sexual predation onto his life. And Rusty Gunther is both a weird, Blofeldian "inspector" and, much later, an intellectually dazzling priest, helping him confront his wretched fate.
But this is Harold Lloyd (or Buster Keaton) thrust into The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, full of dreamlike Expressionism, as when the priest re-defines K's plight as a "trial of life," which he may have sought out himself, from of a need for self-righteousness or self-affirmation. The priest lays out this riddle under a shower of glowing crucifixes raining down on them both, and shimmering waves of light reflect on the flats, adding to the unreal mood.
Earlier in the evening, Mr. Gunther's inspector character plays subtle word games with K, saying (approximately) "the question is not if you've been charged with anything, but rather, if you've been charged or not!" With dialog like that, The Trial anticipates some of our own governmental failings in the present; and also becomes a fully adult Alice in Wonderland, with Jill Ritter as a negligee-wearing temptress, and David Brink and John Reidy as comical secret police. They inform him that he can be both under arrest and still go into work every morningcreating a perpetual state of guilt and confusion. And Margeau Baue Steinau, one of three weird secretaries in K's office, is also exceptional near the end as a mad artist. If you love Terry Gilliam's movie Brazil, you owe it to yourself to see the source-material for much of it, here in a beautifully conceived stage setting.
I was quite surprised when the show was over, to see that it was 10:45, instead of just ten o'clock, as I'd supposed. Tyler Duenow and Justin Been's light and sound designs mesmerize, with weirdly reverberating (pre-recorded) opening lines of dialog between scenes. All the while, strange, Orwellian events rush by, almost incomprehensibly, like special effects of the literary kind.
Through May 9, 2009 at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2348 Tennessee Ave., St. Louis, MO 63104. For ticket information call (314) 865-1995 or visit them on-line at www.straydogtheatre.org.
Photos by John Lamb