Odradek at the House Theatre of Chicago | Theater review
Brett Neveu’s gripping, off-kilter Kafka-inspired tale contains some of the most effective horror scenes in memory.
Kafka’s little parable “Cares of a Family Man” concerns an enigmatic creature known as Odradek, made of thread and crossbars and laughing like fallen leaves. The Czech genius doesn’t explain much about Odradek; neither does ex-Chicagoan Neveu in this strange, gripping new piece inspired by the tale. A lot more happens in Neveu’s version: We’re introduced to a strained father-son relationship; the Father (Parkes) carries on an affair with the boy’s Doctor (Defrin); the Boy (Steakley) develops ever-closer ties with the massive puppet Odradek, lurking under the even more massive stairs. But as in Black Swan, the events of Odradek come mediated by the Boy’s own troubled consciousness: Whether the events we see are actually happening, much less what they mean, remains tantalizingly hard to determine.
Neveu and director Bullard seem to have soaked up the sensibility of midperiod David Cronenberg, both in the deliberately flat characterizations and in the ever more intense visceral shocks that punctuate the piece’s second half. The scenes of the Boy’s decline are the most effective horror theater I have seen, in part because we are led so gradually into a realm of deeply skewed and off-kilter perception. The expressionist tendencies of Neveu’s script are underscored by Josh Schmidt’s moody and gorgeous score, bowed by an onstage bassist. Odradek could use a dose of Kafka’s eerie specificity: There’s nothing here to rival the apple in Gregor Samsa’s back or Titorelli’s cage. All the same, its daring innovations are like a breath of torpid, disease-ridden air.