Presented by Phoenix Theatre Ensemble at the Mint Theatre, 311 W. 43 St., NYC, Dec. 17-Jan. 9.
The newly formed Phoenix Theatre Ensemble is off and running with its first production, "The Trial," which bodes well for its future work. The company was launched by a breakaway group of five actors (Jason Crowl, Angela Madden, Craig Smith, Elise Stone, and Michael Surabian) who left Jean Cocteau Repertory to create a company in line with their own values. Their mission: to see that all theatre artists are equal collaborators in the creative process.
The group has taken on a heavy challenge with "The Trial," a drama (written by André Gide and Jean-Louis Barrault) based on Franz Kafka's 1925 tale of an arbitrary and irrational world. The story depicts one Joseph K, a man pulled from his bed and arrested one morning. K soon realizes it is no practical joke; he moves through the legal maze in mounting frustration and fear, struggling to discover his accusers and his supposed crime.
Though hopelessness is the permeating theme, "The Trial" is shot through with comical and sexual scenes, much like a dream—or nightmare. And though the playwrights capture Kafka's tragicomic material in a series of staccato scenes, the play never builds in an upward arc that moves with ever-increasing intensity. Thus "The Trial" loses the powerful impact it might have in a better-structured piece.
Not surprisingly, the performances of these seasoned players outstrip the material itself, under the sure-handed, imaginative direction of Eve Adamson (also a Cocteau alumna). Many of these players have had years to hone their craft, as has Adamson. She gets top ensemble work from her 14-member cast, with John Lenartz in the lead as K. And her design team creates a neutral gray, black, white, and tan world that offers no humanity and no relief to the embattled K.
Whatever its flaws, "The Trial" is an omen of good things to come from the Phoenix.