Audience members who don't read the handed-out synopsis to "Amerika" may find themselves as lost as the befuddled German teenager whose adventures it chronicles. Well, pseudo-adventures: This adaptation of Franz Kafka's unfinished novel whittles down the story's many characters to two, one of whom pretends to be different people as he tries to give the young immigrant a preview of the typical American experience.
The ruse requires quite a stretch of the imagination and more than a little clarification. This guest production by the Pygmalion Theater of Vienna, Austria, hosted by Scena Theatre, does a disservice to Kafka's story of disappointment in the land of opportunity by presenting it too simply -- a stage adorned with only a crude drawing of an American flag and a papered floor on which props are occasionally drawn puts the burden of context entirely on the actors.
Because "Amerika" is picaresque -- and the dialogue often hard to understand -- this proves to be a difficult task. The story involves Karl Rossmann (Ann-Birgit Holler), a naive teenager whose parents send him to the United States after an older servant seduces him and becomes pregnant with his child. Karl travels by ship to New York, where he is supposed to be greeted by his Uncle Jacob.
Karl is befriended by one of the vessel's mechanics (Ip Wischin, also the play's adapter) after his luggage is apparently stolen by someone whom Karl entrusted to watch it. Or maybe that's just his first lesson:
The "mechanic" -- a real person in the book, though Pygmalion's synopsis describes Wischin's character as "a street painter" who is "acting out for [Karl] all the encounters he thinks Karl is destined to have" -- tells the teen that perhaps in other countries the bag would still be where he had left it, but in America it's as good as gone.
The bag resurfaces later, but it's not the only time Karl is led to panic.
Wischin's street painter then pretends to be Jacob, then an Irish locksmith, then -- in a blond wig, the performance's only costume adjustment -- a woman who gets Karl fired from his job as an elevator operator. All of this happens with few clear breaks in the action to indicate a new episode; audience members sitting anywhere but in Warehouse Next Door's first two rows are at an even greater disadvantage, unable to see the drawings that Wischin scribbles on the floor as his character interacts with Karl.
Director and Pygmalion founder Tino Geirun sees Kafka's absurdities as vaudeville, presenting the characters as Chaplinesque types in ill-fitting suits and bowler hats who mug and gesticulate and play dumb. Very, very dumb: Though Wischin's character is more of an idiot savant who occasionally displays a sharp wit, Karl is too easily fooled by the street painter's shenanigans, including his favorite trick of faking telephone calls by saying, "Ring, ring" and then talking into a receiver whose cord connects to nothing.
The stupidity of Holler's Karl prevents the poor sap from ever being likable, and also limits Holler to two expressions -- sad and hopeful. Wischin's acting credits include "Waiting for Godot," and though one could imagine that his nuanced and energetic slapstick would be riotous with Beckett, his performance here can't rise above the script's muddle.
"Amerika" does offer a few humorous moments, but you might be too busy trying to figure out what's going on to catch them all.
Amerika, adapted by Ip Wischin from the novel by Franz Kafka. Directed by Tino Geirun. Approximately 1 hour 45 minutes. Through Sunday at the Warehouse Next Door, 1021 Seventh St. NW. Call 703-684-7990 or visit www.warehousetheater.com.