Synetic Theater sometimes manages to go where no theater company has gone before. And other times, where no theater company probably should.
The artistically serious, movement-based group in Crystal City takes one of its more unfortunate detours into shouldn't with a grotesquely expressionistic, barely coherent adaptation of "The Trial," Franz Kafka's early-20th-century dystopian novel. Mixing metaphors maniacally, director Paata Tsikurishvili grafts the central conceit of another seminal Kafka novel, "Metamorphosis" — that of a human taking insect form — onto the story of a man, Josef K (Shu-nan Chu), charged with a crime by an authoritarian state that won't tell him what he's supposed to have done.
Save for Josef K, everyone in Tsikurishvili's "Trial" is a bug. While the notion gives the capable costume designer Erik Teague the keys to Synetic's fancifully creative treasure chest, it propels Nathan Weinberger's adaptation into the realm of overanxious cartoon. The arthropod get-ups are clever and at times even cheekily literal-minded: Josef's lawyer (Ryan Tumulty), for instance, is a bloodsucker in every sense of the term. But Synetic offers no compelling conceptual rationale for a 90-minute-long infestation, except maybe that it's all a product of Josef K's own nightmares. Or just that it looks cool.
The operatic performance style Tsikurishvili imposes on the actors doesn't help. Frantic outbursts occur regularly in this "Trial," under the assumption that menace is amplified on a stage when people are in perpetual tizzies. The dangers inherent in absolute authority, seemingly irrationally applied, often come across with a more terrifying air of paranoia when the people in power are portrayed as withholding emotion, rather than continually shouting out orders or laughing like moustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash.
Set designer Daniel Pinha devises a collapsible wall that effectively transfers us from Josef K's grim flat to the bureaucratic demimonde that Josef tumbles into. ("The Trial" feels all but absent the influence of Irina Tsikurishvili, whose passionate choreography has distinguished the company's productions for years.) Chu, meanwhile, has an appealing, Clark Kent-ish presence that under other circumstances would qualify him as good leading-man material. In this "Trial," though, not even he can escape the unfavorable verdict.
The Trial, adapted from Franz Kafka's novel by Nathan Weinberger. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Sets, Daniel Pinha; costumes, Erik Teague; movement, Irina Tsikurishvili; lighting, Brian S. Allard; sound, Thomas Sowers; stage manager, Marley Giggey; resident composer, Konstantine Lortkipanidze. With Tori Bertocci, Ryan Tumulty, Lee Liebeskind, Kathy Gordon. About 90 minutes. $15-$60. Through Feb. 18 at Synetic Theater, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington. Visit synetictheater.org or call 866-811-4111.