Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. – Director’s Note
Thought For Food opened its production of Sally Clark’s The Trial of Judith K. in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace last week, directed by Tyler Seguin, assisted by Tamara Vuckovic. I caught the show last night, in a performance that featured a post-show talkback with Clark.
A gender-switching stage adaptation of Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, The Trial of Judith K. is set in 1980s Vancouver, the surreal world of the story taking on the unique flavour and hard-working, hard-playing hedonism of that decade. Judith (Stephanie Belding), a 30-something professional accounts manager at a bank, wakes one morning to discover she’s being arrested – for what, she is not told. The bizarre legal debates, interrogations and meetings that follow turn her life upside down. It’s like she’s being punked and everyone else is in on it, their smug assurances of “it’s common knowledge” leaving her out of the game. What follows is a crazy, sharply funny, sometimes deeply disturbing journey through the most fucked up legal system you’ve ever seen.
As playwright Clark said during the talkback, comedy works better when it’s fast – and the ensemble does a bang-up job of it, with most cast members playing multiple roles as they roll out this edgy, absurd tale set in this bizarro world. Belding gives a powerful, sexy and funny performance as Judith; a wry-witted and irreverent, but organized and put-together professional with a can-do attitude whose life is thrown into utter disarray as she attempts to unravel wtf is going on with the charge against her.
Belding’s cast mates are all excellent multi-taskers, performing each role with high energy and enthusiasm, no matter how big the line count. Toni Ellwand does a great turn, going from Judith’s befuddled landlady Mrs. Block, to her office nemesis, the jealous Voight, to the reckless and dangerous party girl Stella; she has an extremely poignant moment as Block, a somewhat smug veteran of the legal system who gets a rude awakening about her case. Patrick Howarth (Inspector/Ted/Flogger) is an especially sexy beast as the charming, bad boy, possible serial killer Ted; deathly irresistible with a soft spot for a certain kind of woman. Helen Juvonen (Lang/Theodora/Girl 2) stands out in her roles as Judith’s timid secretary Lang, and particularly as hooker turned lawyer Theodora; whip smart, languid and ruthless, with a flair for the dramatic and a jaded, pragmatic acceptance of this fucked up world, there’s a hint of Marlene Dietrich about her. Andrew Knowlton (Biff/Milly/Tracy/Brazier) is hilarious as Biff, one of the court-appointed officers sent to arrest Judith, and as Brazier, the ridiculously cheerful, classic 80s sporto pain-in-the-ass client Voight turfs over to Judith, much to Judith’s dismay. Scott McCulloch (Clem/Magistrate/Timmy/Pollock) is especially compelling as Pollock, an artist and legal system insider who professes a desire to be of assistance to Judith, all the while attempting to barter information for sex – a prime example of the diabolically funny combined with the truly cringe-worthy elements that run throughout this play. Cara Pantalone (Maria/Deedee/Nun) does a great job going from Judith’s comic, tacky sister-in-law Deedee to the imperious, mysterious, parable-telling Nun; the Madonna to Theodora’s Whore, with religion serving the divine truth as the law doles out the profane.
During the talkback that followed, Clark mentioned that the piece was commissioned in the 1980s, originally as a one-woman show, and the idea came up to treat The Trial as a comedy. An early draft was even more Alice in Wonderland than the version we see today – and Clark was inspired to draw upon a serial killer case that was underway in Vancouver at the time. Responding to a question about Judith’s reaction to seeing the men in her bedroom at the top of the play, and how audience reception to that moment has changed over time, she spoke about the gender reversal in this adaptation, changing the situation of women throwing themselves at a man (from the novel) to men throwing themselves at a woman. While the reversal of attention takes on a different tone in Judith K., the sexual politics are still there – and it’s still a struggle for sexual dominance – in this case, with an 80s feminist sensibility. In response to a query about the shifting audience reaction to authority, Clark pointed out that the law is a metaphor, a higher power, in the play – and the court is life. It receives you when you’re born and dismisses you when you die. And the doorkeeper in the Nun’s parable represents one’s belief system – and how it can distract and compromise away from one’s life. Kafka foresaw Orwell in this dystopian world – and you pretty much have to laugh to keep from crying.
With shouts to the design team for bringing this wacko world to life and conveying a taste of the 80s in this small, narrow playing space: David Poholko (set), Miranda VanLogerenberg (costumes), Jareth Li (lighting) and Alex Eddington (sound, featuring an awesome 80s pre-show soundtrack).
It’s Alice through the looking glass and into Brazil in Thought For Food’s darkly funny, absurdly mind-bending production of The Trial of Judith K.
The Trial of Judith K. continues till Feb 14 in the TPM Backspace. You can get advance tix online or by calling 416-504-7529 – or purchase at the door.