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How fitting: Kafka's "The Trial" in Seattle's Ellis Island

Putting a piece of Seattle history on trial, adventure-loving companies like New Century Theatre and Satori Group are making theater in unexpected places.
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Greta Wilson, Sara Mountjoy-Pepka, Sydney Andrews and Darragh Kennan in The Trial

Putting a piece of Seattle history on trial, adventure-loving companies like New Century Theatre and Satori Group are making theater in unexpected places.

Arbitrary, inscrutable bureaucratic authorities with the power to determine individual fates. The tension of not knowing. The cruelly frustrating uncertainty of the whole process. In spite of the trappings of reality, life’s daily rituals twisted into a surreal waiting game.

That’s an impressionistic précis of Franz Kafka’sThe Trial in the brand-new theatrical adaptation currently being presented by New Century Theatre Company. But it could also describe what generations of immigrants who hoped to become U.S. citizens experienced while being detained in the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Building located south of the ID and east of Century Link Field.

The former INS building, now Inscape arts center. Photo: Joe Mabel

New Century is staging “The Trial” in one of the renovated spaces of this fortress-like behemoth. The former INS Building has recently been given a new lease in Seattle’s cultural life as an arts center renamed Inscape. This imposing four-story structure, built early in the Great Depression and a landmark of Mediterranean Revival architecture in Seattle, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But it also preserves a troubling history of racially based detentions. And the match proves to be uncannily perfect for Kafka's enigmatic story of an average Joe (or "Joseph K."), arrested on his birthday for reasons never stated. His impotent pleas of innocence grow increasingly desperate, but also darkly comical until the nightmarish denouement in this adaptation.

“We couldn’t have found a more suitable space in which to enact Kafka’s story,” says Darragh Kennan, an acclaimed actor who also serves as New Century’s artistic director. Based on the novel from 1914-15, which Kafka never completed, the show features a savvy new dramatization by Kenneth Albers, who has longstanding connections with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “Instead of just presenting a play,” Kennan explains, “we wanted to incorporate the experience of being in this building as part of the theatrical event.”

Along with serving as an immigration station — the Northwest region’s version of Ellis Island — the INS Building contained holding cells and dormitories for Chinese “aliens” who exceeded the draconian immigration quota. Strolling on the second-floor terrace used as a recreation area, you can see the graffitoed names of Latin American detainees of more recent decades.

And Inscape’s aura undeniably intensifies this parable of the Average Citizen driven to protest their innocence of a crime that’s never specified. The theater space, which New Century is borrowing from Inscape’s new resident theater artists the Satori Group, actually occupies the room formerly used for those who were accepted as U.S. citizens to be sworn in.

Amy Thone and Darragh Kennan in “The Trial”. Photo: Chris Bennion

The confines of the space limit the audience to a total of 71. After being “processed” in a holding area, theatergoers are led to seats configured as towering jury boxes (part of Jennifer Zeyl’s excellent set design), while the theme from “A Summer Place” plays in an endless, Orwellian loop. This prelude perfectly captures the blend of absurdism with the disarmingly banal which makes Kafka’s narrative so intriguing.

In 2004 the INS closed shop here, transferring its detention center to Tacoma. After a period of vacancy, the old building was sold for $4.4 million at a federal auction. Had it not been for the Great Recession, the whole structure might have become another office building, but it was eventually renovated and transformed into Inscape — just in time to accommodate the forced exodus of artists from the old 619 Western Building in Pioneer Square.

With 70,000 square feet and a variety of subdivided studio and performance spaces, Inscape has emerged over the past year as Seattle’s most extensive arts enclave — a beehive with more than 125 tenants. Individual and small nonprofit arts groups are turning it into an active center for painting, sculpture, photography, digital media, design and the performing arts. It’s an ideal destination for First Thursday art walks. There’s also a one-room museum dedicated to paranormal lore where you can book ghost-hunting tours.

But it hardly takes ghosts to get a vivid sense of the history that haunts this space. Inscape artists have been channeling their impressions into works that reimagine the perspective of waiting detainees. In the inaugural installation for the space in late 2010, for example, Helen Gamble strung together layers of suspended cots that instantly relayed an image of crowded but lonely dormitories of segregated Chinese men.

Inscape clearly informs the sensibility of live-performance projects like “The Trial” as well. New Century Theatre first dazzled theater lovers in late 2008 with its staging of Elmer Rice’s expressionist-tinged “The Adding Machine.” The company has earned a reputation ever since for choosing rarely produced material that’s deeply engaging but defies contemporary conventions of theatrical realism.

Greta Wilson, Sara Mountjoy-Pepka, Sydney Andrews and Darragh Kennan in “The Trial.” Photo: Chris Bennion

At the same time, their experimental attitude is firmly grounded in a serious commitment to craft. “The Trial” is on one level a tour de force of ensemble choreography, with a large cast of 13 interacting in a tight space and surrounded on three sides by the jury boxes. It also features memorable solo turns by some of Seattle’s finest actors, including Amy Thone, M.J. Sieber, Michael Patten, Alex Matthew and Darragh Kennan himself as Kafka’s hapless protagonist, “Joseph K.” His Joseph plays the innocence-protesting straight man, while everyone else seems to be following a predetermined script. Kennan compares the dark comedy of his ordeal, an essential aspect of this adaptation, to the life-in-a-fishbowl framework of “The Truman Show.”

As brilliantly staged by John Langs — he’s making a return to New Century after directing “The Adding Machine,” which shared something of “The Trial”’s absurdist flavor — the production conveys a genuine sense of event. The atmosphere of INS’ past is psychologically and even physically evoked. Elements of the room come to embody Kafka’s imagery of alienating architectural spaces and arbitrarily withheld permission to enter or exit.

The result is something like an extra “fifth wall,” while the famous fourth wall separating the actors and audience becomes unnervingly permeable, allowing us to sit on judgment both of the action and of the audience within view. I couldn’t help wondering how completely different the experience must be from each vantage point in the surrounding jury boxes.

After several years of migrating between ACT and the Erickson Theater on Capitol Hill — along with free monthly play readings hosted at Solo Bar in Queen Anne — the plan for New Century Theatre is to stake out a new home in the 12th Avenue Arts complex currently under construction. In the meantime, the chance to use the Inscape space for “The Trial” proved irresistible. “It’s great to be able to create an experience that’s part of the building,” Kennan remarks.

But there’s a price as well to using such non-traditional spaces, he points out. Assessing how much power is available, for example, adds to the work of design team members like Geoff Korf, who is behind the production’s wonderfully noirish lighting. “And we have to convince our audience base to take a risk and seek us out in an unfamiliar space. So this kind of adventure means a lot of extra work when you want to present what is basically the more traditional model of theater.”

By contrast, he points to Satori Group, which is lending their Inscape space to New Century for “The Trial.” “What they do is a kind of generative theater, with a different feel, that goes together very well in nontraditional spaces.”

In fact Satori inaugurated the Inscape theater space just last month with “reWilding,” a show that actually involved going off the grid in more ways than one. With a live band providing the soundtrack and offerings of food to audience members, “reWilding” felt more like a happening than a staged play. The collaborative script cooked up between playwright Martyna Majok and ensemble members involved a group of possibly post-apocalyptic survivors who make a go of living off the land.

Satori Group in “reWilding.” Photo: Alice Wheeler

Rejecting the past tense, they strive to carve out a refuge in the wilderness. But they can’t overcome the tension between a desire for fresh beginnings and their dystopian antagonisms. The intense intimacy of the space, meanwhile, much as in “The Trial,” made the audience feel somehow voyeuristic and at the same time caught up in the fate of these characters.

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage,” Peter Brook declared in his famous manifesto (the namesake of the erstwhile Empty Space Theatre). But spaces like Inscape, with its layered history and architecture, are inspiring ways of thinking outside the theatrical black box and reinvigorating the experience of live performance.

If you go: New Century Theatre Company’s production of “The Trial” runs through April 28 at, 815 Seattle Blvd. S. (just south of Uwajimaya).

  

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How fitting: Kafka's "The Trial" in Seattle's Ellis Island

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