Taiwanese director Dennis Yueh-Yeh Li brings his original adaptation of celebrated German playwright Peter Weiss’ The (New) Trial to Theater for the New City from September 1 – 6 as part of the Dream Up Festival with support from Label Gray and The Living Theater. Though not directly based on Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, Weiss’ describes his play as sharing an “inner affinity” with Kafka’s story of hapless and helpless confusion. Li’s production will be presented in the genre of experimental theater in English and German and attempts to re-introduce Weiss’ aesthetics and German post-war theater to American audiences.
The (New) Trial is an indictment of capitalism. It presents a surreal look at the life of Joseph K, an attorney at an international corporation, by exploring K’s obsessive idealism and his self-destructive addiction to help others. Confined to his docile body, K is manipulated to function as a public mask by the corporation he works for to win the “war” of the global market expansion, and is eventually abandoned by once the victory is obtained.
With Weiss’s partisan plays as a magnet, this eclectic ensemble, comprised of actors from across the globe, including Germany, Israel, Spain, Argentina, and Taiwan, is brought together by the belief in the power of avant-garde political theatre. Throughout the production the artists will comment on the sociopolitical structure of the contemporary society from the perspective of their own cultural and political backgrounds.
Continuing the legacy and the belief of The Living Theatre, in The (New) Trial, Li, who earned his Master’s degree in Performance Studies at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, attempts to deconstruct societal compliancy and the hierarchical power relations among the characters in the play, hoping to stimulate critical thoughts. To manifest this essential concept, actors will explore the dynamics between the different characters and break through the fourth wall to share personal experiences of their lives as actors on/off stage. A giant mirror will cover up the stage floor for actors to be fully aware of the power relations to the self.
Li, who grew up in Taiwan watching contemporary theater and traditional performing arts, brings Asian theatrical aesthetics to this Bertolt Brecht-influenced work.
In Li’s adaptation, physicality replaces verbal expression. He gives the example of how Asian theater would rely on movement to show a person is drunk, whereas an inebriated person in a western play would be portrayed through mumbling and be nonsensical talk.
Shifting the balance between verbal and physical expressions, as a director, Li often questions the use of verbal language. Aiming to deconstruct the meaning behind verbal language and to force performers to return to the fundamental concept of language, the actors in this play’s international cast at times use their mother tongue to “[give] their words an authenticity and depth of emotion” “‘Sounds’ mean way more than ‘words’,” Li explains, and those in the audience who do not understand the language can experience the sound.
The play also upends western notions of time. In Asian theater, it becomes circular rather than linear and irreversible. Li explained, “In western theatre, you can hear the climax, while in Asian theatre, it repeats the same rhythm.”
To embody circular time and the idea that K remains the same from the beginning through the end even as events happen around him and the story moves on, repetitive melodies are used for the show, and the same melody will be played during transitions between scenes. Li also negates the story’s linear plot and furthers the idea of K as an everyman by having multiple actors play the leading role. Borrowing a technique from Japanese theater wherein a non-participating “outsider” who seemingly is irrelevant to the action on stage, one of them will always be present on stage.
While post-war German theater may seem esoteric, the story of the individual is relevant to our increasingly connected and corporate world. Through this production, Li hopes to transcend national and ethnic boundaries and bring recognition to the diversity of professions Asians have chosen to pursue.
The Dream Up Festival has more about the production.
Lead image modified for Beyond Chinatown