Scena Theatre's unfortunate staging of Franz Kafka's "The Trial" commences with an unnerving image: an empty wooden chair starkly illuminated by bare bulbs that emphasize the prisonlike bleakness of Warehouse Theatre's brick walls. All well and good, you think: The scene has a desolate quality that seems right for Kafka and particularly for "The Trial," with its nightmarish vision of a heartless, logic-free justice system.
Unfortunately the chilling ambiance pretty much dissipates once the cast stalks onstage and assumes its positions, with Joseph K (Christopher Henley) in the center and the ensemble stationed in an arc of surrounding chairs. As K's hideous adventure swings into motion, the actors participate ostentatiously in the evocation of the environment. They make odd noises to create the soundscape of a city and they flail away with their fingers at imaginary typewriters to suggest the bank where K works. They stand on their chairs, grimacing, in contorted frozen postures to imitate the gargoyles of a cathedral. They whisper the word "guilt" -- just in case you hadn't gotten the story's general drift.
The goal is presumably to set a tone of paranoid wonder, emphasizing K's confinement in a disorienting dystopia while supplying a bit of that good old bare-bones-theater magic. But the ensemble's actions are so heavy-handed and intrusive that they have the opposite effect -- they diminish the mood of alienation and eeriness by making K's surroundings seem humanized. The group theatrics infuse scenes with unnecessary melodrama and even goofiness. It's hard to succumb to a totalitarian vision when you're looking at a ring of actors fidgeting with imaginary bank notes as if they were caught up in an enthusiastic game of Monopoly.
Part of the reason Kafka's works are so terrifying is that their absurdity unfolds with a certain pragmatic banality -- the villains tend to be bureaucrats who quibble over procedures and paperwork. The distracting histrionics undermine that crucial tone of creepy pedestrianism. Steven Berkoff's adaptation has a long track record, having premiered more than three decades ago, but the approach does not function well in director Robert McNamara's staging.
None of the Scena performers manages to transcend the heavy-handed dramaturgy, although some of the acting is adequate. Henley makes a reasonably convincing K -- his reactions a mix of irritability, skepticism and panic; his long, lean, slightly hunched silhouette looking appropriately vulnerable. John Tweel gives an enjoyably devilish twist to the character of the Inspector, and Jim Zidar lends gravity to the figure of Huld the lawyer.
But the highlight of the Scena production is Alisa Mandel's terrific costume design, which sticks to black, white and gray, relieved here and there by the odd red accessory. The unified palette gives the production the classy look of a black-and-white movie without seeming too far-fetched for characters who work as legal underlings and hangers-on. The vests and pinstripe pants for the men harmonize particularly well with the Magritte-type bowler hats worn by the two thuggish guards (Terrence Heffernan and Christopher Moss).
Marianne Meadows's lurid lighting, on the other hand, strikes the same note of counterproductive sensationalism as all of the ensemble's shtick. It's an immense relief when the cast filters offstage and we're left looking at that empty central chair. By comparison with what has come before, the image is positively Kafkaesque.
The Trial, adapted from the Franz Kafka novel by Steven Berkoff. Directed by Robert McNamara. Set design, Kimberley E. Cruce; sound design, David Crandall. Approximately 2 hours 20 minutes. At the Warehouse Theatre, 1021 Seventh St. NW. Call 703-684-7990 or visit www.scenatheatre.org.