By Julie Lawrence Special to Published Mar 22, 2008 at 5:29 AM

Mask & Puppet Theatre artistic director Max Samson has had Kafka on the brain for a while. Nearly 10 years ago, after directing "Before the Law" -- his favorite parable from "The Trial" -- in a marionette workshop, he knew he wanted to further develop and produce what he considered to be a captivating and socially relevant work of art.

In 2005 he helped bring Kafka's novel to life on the Bucketworks stage, a production that was well received, but that slavishly recounted, word for word, the dense text into a lengthy performance.

Now, with a fresh script written by First Stage Children's Theater founder John Schneider and under the direction of Rob Goodman, Mask & Puppet Theatre presents "The Ballad of Josef K.," a musical puppet adaptation of "The Trial," Friday, March 28 through Sunday, April 13 at Marcus Center's Vogel Hall.

The use of puppets, Samson says, played a critical role in eliminating the excess wordiness of the original production and evoking an emotional understanding of the issues -- bureaucracy, absurdity, control, humanity -- through imagery and action.

"(Puppets) make the story more accessible," he says. "They are the perfect way of taking an individual character and making them archetypal. Actors can do things that puppets can't do, but bringing inanimate objects to life has a certain magic to it."

True to Kafka, the play makes brilliant use of symbolism and employs more theatrical techniques to tell the story of Josef K.'s unjust arrest and the social conflicts, angst and self-doubt that arises in its wake.

Minneapolis-based band Thunder in the Valley -- three members of which have Milwaukee roots -- composed a libretto and play live during the performance to provide commentary of the inner life of the play and its characters.

The physical attributes of the puppets, for example, are not random. Anyone can see that the High Priest character accurately resembles Dick Cheney, though it is merely the loose iconic association that is important here, says Samson. Samson, along with artists Jeff Holub, Michael Pettit and Ian Tews, designed and constructed all the puppets.

"The detective might remind one of Nixon. The judge might remind one of a current talk show host, but it's not important in that sense, only that it evokes some type of archetypal memory of characters in America's consciousness."

Essentially, this is a big part of why Samson saw "The Trial" so relevant to the U.S.'s contemporary political landscape. He references the McCarthy era and, more recently, the trial of Jose Padilla.

"In a sense, if you don't open that door and see that issue, it's not there for most of us. We just go about living our lives. But when you do open that door, whether it's the genocide in Darfur or the beating of Jose Padilla, in a way you can't close the door again. Everything takes on a different light.

"We're trying to give emotional content to that understanding. Most people today have the information -- the Internet, the news -- but in some way we've disconnected ourselves emotionally from that understanding and go about our lives quite blithely. This play is an attempt to bring us emotionally in contact with that part of the world that we intellectually know exists."

The Mask & Puppet Theatre hosts a free symposium related to the production at UWM's Zelazo Center at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, March 29. Dubbed "Civil Liberties Through the Prism of Franz Kafka's 'The Trial,'" it welcomes Kafka expert Marcus Bullock for a presentation on "Why Kafka Hesitates;" UWM media studies teacher Carol Stabile for a talk on "Blacklisted Women, the FBI, and the Political Logic of Contamination" and UW-Madison philosophy professor Claudia Card to discuss "The Paradox of Genocidal Rape Aimed at Enforced Pregnancy." Senator Russ Feingold is the keynote speaker.

Dealing with adult themes and containing explicit sexual content essential to Kafka's message, both Samson and Schneider agree "The Ballad of Josef K." is not recommended for children under age 13.

"Some characters have been merged, but the essential ingredients and story is still there," Samson says. "We didn't change the basic meaning o f the text. Most importantly, we kept the ambiguities inherent to Kafka's work. We say, yes, it's political, but there's also all these sexual issues and human interactions going on, too. Since it's Kafka, it's definitely about the relationship with his father, so there's psychology in it ... It's also a spiritual story ... It's a polemic. It's a work of art."

Julie Lawrence Special to staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.

As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”