presented by La MaMa in association with Teatro Dramma
written and directed by Elia Schneider
Judgment on a Gray Beach, written and directed by Elia Schneider, presented by La MaMa in association with Teatro Dramma, is a series of bizarre, sometimes haunting images. Without dialogue, its ten deadpan actors are uber-marionettes expressing an uncompromising desolation. The person and the spirit of Franz Kafka pervade the piece.
A disembodied voice at the opening of the show tells us we’re at “a closed road and a dead end.” We find ourselves on a desolate beach (there’s sand on the floor of the bare stage), but it may as well be a concentration camp.
Schneider works with icons – a Hitler character, a ballerina. All are drained of emotion. Making the stage picture surreal, all the costumes are black. The only color is on a couple of almost-Nazi armbands.
Everyone’s a prisoner here. There’s the almost-Hitler character has a number on the back of his shirt, and at one point he’s in an electric chair. A man leads a woman by a long rope until she turns and leads him. A character holds a knife to a man’s throat and then switches the angle of her arm so that she’s holding it to her own.
A character eats from a dog bowl. We see a beating in shadow and hear the victim’s groans. There’s offstage crying. There’s a vulgar image when a woman caresses the head of a doll she’s half-birthed. And, of course, there’s the predictable rape.
There’s an aural overlay throughout, sometimes pop music. We hear My Boy Lollipop as three women bounce around a big ball. The song is a striking juxtaposition with the on-stage life we’ve been seeing, but what are we to make of the ball game? Schneider creates the same effect when actors hold huge guns and we hear It’s a Wonderful World. Later, actresses sing Hit the Road Jack. The song Get Happy turns up. And actors even do the twist. Sometimes the music corresponds to a scene change, but sometimes it changes in the middle of an image. Referring so often to pop culture is effective once, but to repeat it robs the scenes of the timeless element they need.
And sometimes the offstage voice speaks words. We hear passages from Kafka’s diary, from The Judgment and from a letter by Kafka (probably to Max Brod) asking that his work be destroyed after his death.
Throughout it all, there’s an actor representing Kafka, wearing a bureaucratic suit. He observes with a look of muted horror and disbelief, the only suggestion of emotion on stage. At one point he tries to sneak away. We can accept this, but what are we to make of his doing the twist with the bizarre characters?
All in all, the play marries Kafka and his themes to the Holocaust (and Kafka really did anticipate the Holocaust). When the actresses sing, they sing with European accents. The set and situation have the horrific, bleak feel of the gulag.
At the end, the offstage voice announces “Your process is complete,” and Kafka is executed in an electric chair. But there’s one more scene: a character in a big black dress and a red armband, whom we’ve never seen before, sings Lili Marlene.
Only the playwright knows what this all means. Schneider is working with a strict iconography, but she hasn’t offered us an interpretive key. The whole thing is enormously self-absorbed. It’s monochromatic, and it becomes tiresome.
What keeps us attentive is the meticulous polish of the execution. Every moment is clearly what it should be, with never a false step. Whether they’re dancing or bouncing a ball, singing or sliding into electric chairs, groveling at a dog bowl or playing the accordion, its ten performers are utterly precise in every moment.