The quirkiness of this collection of Franz Kafka short stories and journal entries gets a riveting staging by the Odyssey Theatres' Artistic Director Ron Sossi. The talented members of the Odyssey's resident Koan Ensemble have joined with their mentor to adapt these obscure tales for the stage, to investigate the writer's paranoid fascination with what he saw as the often grotesque mysteries of existence in the 20th century. The eight actors assembled reflect a fierce dedication to making this piece they collectively created sing. And sing it does. Arias.
Beth Hogan graciously leads the ensemble, appearing as everything from a Victorian lady to the main character in The Metamorphosis, a simple clerk who involuntarily mutates from human being to bug. Eventually the surprisingly acrobatic Hogan is left to hang in various insect-like positions from a crossbar in one of the most impressive onstage transformations since Zero Mostel donned the skin of a rhinoceros. And when Hogan speaks, she celebrates the words without getting lost in them, a quality that sets the straightforward tone for the entire production, giving everyone in attendance a chance to jump into Kafka's mind rather than simply observe from afar. "We're all in the woods, everyone," wrote Kafka. "In a different place, in a different way."
On designer Matthew Egan's basically bare stage, only cages are wheeled out, as Kafka believed every man lives behind bars he carries within him. Everything in this production is fascinating in its austerity, which is then made complex by the torrent of words from the conflicted mind of a tortured artist. Only the starkly complex lighting of Mike Durst and the occasional shock of red slashing across costumer Gelareh Khalioun's suitably drab design choices punctuate the minimalism of Koan's reverent homage. Sossi and his ensemble succeed profoundly in exploring the debilitating alienation that haunted Kafka's life ("From the very beginning I felt some vague discrepancy in me") and clarified his work, giving it an intensely personal vision and a scary universality.
"Kafka Thing," presented by and at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A. Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. (Also Sun. 3 p.m. Feb. 27, Mar. 13 & 27, Apr. 3 & 17.) Dark Feb. 16, Apr. 6 & 13.) Feb. 12-Apr. 17. $20.50-25. (310) 477-2055.