Scripting ‘The Trial’

Local writer converts a Kafka classic for...
Scripting ‘The Trial’
Can somebody tell me what the hell's going on here? Jo Krukowski and Greg Hudson navigate a legal labyrinth in Fermat's Last Theater Company's production of The Trial.

You might think that converting The Trial, Franz Kafka’s classic, metaphorical tale of an everyman banker arrested and accused of a mysterious, never-identified crime into a staged script, would be a tall and tricky task.

And you’d be right, especially given that the likes of Orson Welles (1962) and Harold Pinter (1993) have tackled it before, albeit for the big screen. But Alex Hancock, the local writer that Fermat’s Last Theater Company tabbed to adapt the original script of the production they open June 23 in the Frederic March Play Circle, took it on, and survived the experience less scathed than Josef K., Kafka’s enigmatic protagonist.

The hardest part? Organizing Kafka’s dense narrative into a comprehensible storyline.

“It was hard figuring out a structure that wouldn’t be too contrived,” Hancock says. “Kafka wasn’t even sure which order the chapters would come in.”

Capturing the story’s narrative voice was the key to everything else falling into place. Hancock knew that having an onstage narrator setting the scenes would be dramatically deadly, so instead, he divided that responsibility among the three women K. (Greg Hudson) connects with during his journey through the bureaucratic and legal labyrinth: Miss Burstner, played by Jo Krukowski, the Bailiff’s Wife, played by Stacy Garbarski, and Leni, played by Janine Puleo.

“Once I had that structure, I could shift to presenting as many individual scenes from the book as I could without overwhelming the audience,” Hancock says.

Several didn’t make the cut, simply because they overemphasized the story’s repetitious and defeatist vibe. Instead, Hancock focused on the characters–the lawyer, the doctor and the priest–who fail to help K. decipher and resolve the unrevealed charge that’s been leveled against him. He also tried to preserve as much of the book’s dark, absurdist humor and dialogue as possible.

“For me, it really works on stage,” he says. “It just felt cumulatively devastating to have these people failing him. I didn’t want to write a scene where K. gets that the system is rigged against him all at once.”

About halfway through the writing process, Hancock realized his script was trapping Greg Hudson, the actor who’ll be playing K., on the stage for the play’s entire hour-and-a-half running time. Tall task for Hudson, sure, but also dramatically poetic.

“K. can’t leave the stage, and he also can’t escape the justice system,” Hancock notes.

Hancock’s been around the writing block a few times–he wrote stage plays in the 1970s, dabbled in Hollywood screenwriting for more than a decade, and published a novel, Into the Light, in 1985. He’s already working on another page-to-stage adaptation: Miss Eyre and Mrs. Rochester, a spin on the Charlotte Bronte classic in which Jane discovers the history behind the book’s creepy woman in the attic on her own accord, rather than having it explained to her.

(Hey, maybe we just revealed Fermat’s 2017 production. You never know.)

Having spent so much quality time with Kafka’s book has reminded Hancock of how relevant it remains, even 90 years after Kafka stopped adding to it.

“The state of our criminal justice system remains in crisis,” he says. “Things many of us have taken for granted, like the concept that an individual is innocent until proven guilty, don’t hold for many people. The Trial is the greatest example of that that we have.”

Like Fermat’s production of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie last year, The Trial was financed by a Kickstarter campaign–the company met its $3,000 goal with several days to spare–and is unticketed and free to the public, although donations are appreciated. The production also features jazz music from the Left Field Trio.

The Trial runs June 23-July 2 in the Frederic March Play Circle in the Memorial Union. For more information, check out the company’s Tumblr page.