The resident thesps of the Odyssey Theater Ensemble (collectively known as Koan) have eschewed tackling Franz Kafka’s heavier tomes in “Kafka’s Thing,” concentrating instead on bringing to life the writer’s shorter works and journal entries. The result is a thoroughly rewarding smorgasbord of Kafka tidbits, culled from more than 30 works, utilizing a wide range of reality heightening theatrical styles, including farce, surrealism and commedia dell’arte.
Under artistic director Ron Sossi’s intuitive, inventive staging, an eight-member ensemble never delves too deeply into Kafka’s nightmarish central theme — the isolation of the human soul within the unfeeling mechanism of modern society. The thesps do offer tantalizing glimpses into the mental gyrations of a tortured genius. His jaundiced vision of the artist’s imperative (eerily evocative of such reality TV fare as “Fear Factor” and “Survivor”) is underscored in first act opener “The Hunger Artist,” featuring a caged, fasting masked performer (Deana Cignoni) whose artistic expression takes the form of sitting calmly as her body slowly annihilates itself. Her “performance” is finally cancelled when the spectators eventually lose interest.
The inability of humans to truly connect with one another recurs thematically throughout the evening. In a short but haunting vignette, a lonely tram-riding businessman (Luis Zambrano) narrowly misses connecting with a comely young woman (Amanda Street) who casts him a fleeting but inviting sideward glance. Two Odyssey vets (Beth Hogan and Alan Abelew) have their way with the commedia-esque “Bachelor’s Ill Luck” and surrealistic “The Street Window.”
Kafka’s dissection of the arbitrariness of life and death is played out in telling casualness as diners in a restaurant calmly observe a patron (Cignoni) being methodically devoured by a vulture residing under her table. Following in that same theme are full ensemble renderings of “Fratricide” and “In the Penal Colony.”
Kafka’s take on political expediency, explored in “Jackals and Arabs” (featuring Abelew, Norman Victor and Zambrano), plays like a distillation of current world affairs. And a brief second act-opening sojourn within one of Kafka’s most famous works, “The Metamorphosis,” helps remind us of the work’s deserving place in the canon of world literature.
Acting as members of the ensemble are the immensely complimentary combined production designs of Matthew Egan (sets), Mike Durst (lights), Gelareh Khalioun (costumes) and Kurt Thum (sound). Thum’s use of diverse musical artists, ranging from Bela Bartok to Frank Zappa, is particularly effective at underscoring the ever-shifting themes within this Kafka fest.