A stunning production frames "The Castle," a well-acted dramatic adaptation of Kafka’s characteristically enigmatic novel. Falling snow is projected onto the curtain as it parts to reveal a man standing shivering outside the bar of an inn. Cold, hungry, and tired, he enters the bar that we see as a large transparent plastic cube. It is set within a lovely winter landscape framed with white birch trees. The scenic design by Anna Louizos revolves during the 90-minute play (no intermission) smoothly, transforming into a dozen places about town for an impressive effect. It is complemented throughout by Howell Binkley’s atmospheric lighting and Jon Weston’s sound.
The Man, known as K, a land surveyor, only wishes a night’s lodging before he sets off in the morning for the castle at the top of the hill. Although K has an official paper assigning him to his post in the town, the bar’s hostile-looking habitues nevertheless treat him antagonistically and with suspcion. In keeping with Kafka’s surreal no man and every man’s land, and the metaphysical aspects of the plot, K is thwarted, diverted, and discouraged from the start by everyone he meets. His attempts to gain access to the castle, and specifically to meet Heir Klaum, the chief administrator, results in a maze of bureaucracy and blind alleys.
What propels the action of this formidable and effective dramatization of the novel by Max Brod, faithfully adapted by David Fishelson and Aaron Leichter, is Scott Schwartz’s ("Tick…tick…boom!" and "Batboy") boldly audacious direction, and the strong central performance of William Atherton as K. Of course, had K an inkling that he was in Kafka-land he would have known from the start that his quest would be futile. However frustrated he becomes by everyone else’s vague but obvious connection to those in authority and power, he becomes obsessed with getting answers to his own questions regarding his post. Atherton, who has a fine body of film and stage work, creates a wonderfully complex figure both authoritative by nature and confounded by events. Tense and passionate, a victim and a provocateur, Atherton’s mesmerizing performance is of a man determined to succeed and a man destined to fail.
Supporting performances emphasize the eccentric with each character representing an either comic or chilling presence. Catherine Curtin is particularly fearsome and funny as the lusty wench, formerly Klaum’s mistress, who shacks up with K. The supporting cast, many of whom double as the villagers who do not take kindly to K’s intrusion into their purposeless lives, do a splendid job of defending the right to be brutally and unabashedly absurd in the defense of metaphor. Three stars. You won’t feel cheated.
The Castle, Manhattan Ensemble Theater, 55 Mercer Street. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200. To March 3.