It wouldn’t be too great a stretch to say that Puppet Kafka – a new play by B. Walker Sampson produced by Brooklyn’s puppet theater group Drama of Works at HERE Arts Center – falls victim to its own absurdly Kafkaesque predicament. On the one hand, Franz Kafka’s stories seem perfectly suited to puppet performers: what more apt metaphor for the incomprehensible forces that dictate our lives with no regard to our well-being, and the giant hands that threaten to squash us at any moment, than the relationship between puppet and puppeteer? That said, there’s a stiff and cold brutality in the Czech modernist’s work that doesn’t exactly lend itself to the handling of intricate and delicate puppets.
Despite its lack of momentum – most scene changes feature long pauses as actors and their puppets shuffle awkwardly into place – some of Drama of Works’ inventive creations give Puppet Kafka undeniable appeal. Interweaving strands from the author’s life and several of his writings (The Trial, Metamorphosis and The Penal Colony most notably), each narrative features a different style of puppet characters, while human actors move between the meta-fictional planes. In the biographical strain, Kafka and his friend-cum-literary agent Max Brod (perpetually shouting his name with outstretched arms like Arrested Development’s Steve Holt) are portrayed by traditional Czech marionettes (handled b Jason Howard and John Ardolino, respectively). Scenes from The Trial feature, appropriately enough, characters represented solely by the first letters in their names. The most successful puppets, however, are the life-sized invisible interrogator from The Trial (animated by Adam Sullivan) and the bug from Metamorphosis – a surprisingly adorable construction of bread baskets with pheasant feathers for antennae brought to life by Scott Weber.
Beyond its formal inventiveness, though, Puppet Kafka remains hampered by the difficulties of its medium. Puppets are effective vessels of existential angst, until – as inevitably happens in Kafka’s work – their angst turns to agony, and mental suffering gives way to physical pain. Aside from the cleverly rendered ending of The Penal Colony, the final quarter of the production lags as the dire tension that ought to build towards our heroes’ demise is lost in awkward fits and starts. In another cruel twist of fate, the excellent set design (by Markus Maurette and Meghan Williams) probably contributes to this lack of momentum, its miniature spaces (think of the 7½th floor in that other pop cultural meta-puppetry text, Being John Malkovich) forcing actors to move slowly through low doorways and around tiny furniture. All this isn’t to say that Drama of Works’ project doesn’t have great potential, though certainly some workshopping and more puppet-compatible stories (maybe A Hunger Artist) would help immensely. In the right hands Puppet Kafka can become a terrific show, but first it needs to find its legs.