A Kafkaesque production

The Clipa Theater is taking over a former jail for its premiere of 'K'.

In its fifth site-specific production premiered at the Israel Festival, Clipa Theater will take over the Mandate-era Central Jerusalem Prison to present an amalgamated fantasy of self-expression and self-confinement as symbolized by the ever-struggling personage of Franz Kafka. Originally built as a women's dormitory for Russian pilgrims, the building now houses the Underground Prisoners Museum. Simply titled K., the Clipa performance is designed as a funfair that's more dark than funny in which announcers promote their cells and try to convince the audience to come and visit there. It centers around K., a character inspired by Kafka, who "invites a large audience to reveal his work - something he has never done before," according to Idit Herman, Clipa's artistic director and one of its founders. "K. seems to be everywhere," says Herman. Indeed, the audience meets him as soon as they reach the interior ticket booth, where he asks them to choose one of three routes through the jail. The choice will determine what kind of performance they see. Herman explains that the first route is closer to installation than performance, more like a plastic arts exhibit. The second involves theatrical scenes that have a beginning, a middle and an end. And the third is a fantastical route that involves going up on the roof and passing through a room covered by a black pool. "You can come with a friend and see two completely different shows," Herman says, adding that the inability to complete something is a Kafkaesque quality. "He was never able to complete his writings, never thought them perfect enough," she explains. Herman reflects that the process of adaptation, which is based on Kafka's very short stories, was long and strenuous. It involved carefully selecting the texts over the course of a number of years. But only upon seeing the former jail did she understand how to stitch the pieces together. "It's hard to transform a perfect textual creation into visual theater," she says. "Many of the texts were also transformed into songs with music." One example she gives is the adaptation of a story called "The Vulture." In it, a vulture "hacks" at a man's feet. A "gentleman" passes by and asks the man why he lets himself be tortured this way, suggesting simply to shoot the vulture. The man asks whether the gentleman would be able to do that, and the gentleman says he would with pleasure, promising to return within half an hour with his gun. As soon as the man leaves, the vulture, who has somehow understood the conversation, flies down and "thrust its beak through [his] mouth." The man's only consolation is to feel the vulture "drowning irretrievably in my blood, which was filling every depth, flooding every shore." "It's very macabre, almost overdramatic," says Herman, "and it has a real dialogue, which rarely appears [in the short texts]." She says that after exploring a very strong visual representation, she went in the opposite direction, choosing to show it as the on-set shooting of a B-film horror flick of the same story. "It becomes a bit comic but also remains faithful to the text." In addition to these kinds of dramatic or imagined scenes being played out in each cell, the character of K. is constantly moving through the jailhouse, speaking a set of lines and monologues based largely on Kafka's "Letter to His Father." The original document - nearly 20,000 words in English - ran for 45 typewritten pages and two additional handwritten pages. "It took me a long time of reading the letter over and over," says Herman, "before I noticed all the hints of his being in a sort of jail." Oded Tzadok, who plays K., created the character together with Herman. In his research for the character, Tzadok started by reading several biographies about Kafka, then read a number of the writer's own works, steadily creating a picture of him from childhood through to his relationship with his parents and to his two love affairs conducted largely on paper. "The persona we created is inspired by Kafka, but it's not really Kafka," reflects Tzadok. "[K.] turned out to be a performer, which is a bit of a problem because Kafka was a very shy, closed person. Here he's very verbal, sarcastic." Tzadok explains that K. is afraid the audience won't listen to him or understand what he wanted to say. "That's why he's in the corridors all the time, talking to people." There's an element of improvisation here: Though Tzadok has his texts prepared, he has to fit them to certain moments. "He's checking whether they get his message," adds Tzadok, who sees Kafka as a prophet. Similarly, K. tries to make his public realize that they should wake up - consider whether their life is what it should be and not wait for something external to happen. "In the monologue, I speak about salvation, and that one shouldn't look for it in material things." Tzadok also questions the effort. "[Kafka] put so much effort into writing this stuff, being by himself all the time, blocking himself from society - but doing it for society. Is it worth it? Will they hear me?" It's an essential question because the audience, which is heavily manipulated, is an important part of the show. They're locked in, told what to do and where to go, never given a chance to rest. For Tzadok, the jail is K.'s surroundings, but it's also the jail we each live in - the everyday need to earn a salary and pay bills. He describes Kafka as a voice for social change while being himself afraid of change. Herman describes the jail as Kafka's creativity, a place where he is both prisoner and warden. "It deals with how the artist is imprisoned inside his creation; but to the audience that looks from the outside, he seems to be the master," she explains. "Kafka symbolizes the puritan artist who sacrifices all, even his life. We can admire him, but it's something we seldom reach as artists or creative people. He's a kind of idol." She adds, "The project is so huge, so complex, that each participant learns what it means to be totally in [an artistic endeavor], to sacrifice at least part of your life to it." Herman says that now she's able to look at Kafka and wonder whether he was right or wrong in this approach. "At first I thought he was right. Now I'm less sure that this kind of fatalism is the only way. But even if my answer is that it isn't the way, I can't help but admire his attempt." K. will run as part of the Israel Festival only. June 2, 3, 4, 8, 9 at 8:30 p.m.; and June 6 at 9 p.m. The play is approximately 1 hr. 45 mins. long without an intermission. For tickets and information, visit www.israel-festival.org.il or call 1-700-70-20-15 or 623-7000.