It's easy to see why the East German play Knights of the Round Table was so popular: the idea of an aging, modern-dress King Arthur watching his kingdom slip away works on so many metaphorical levels. Does he represent a waning communism as democracy rears its head in the form of Arthur's rebellious son, Mordred? Or does his black-clad son's hostile rejection of the Holy Grail represent something darker in Germany's past?
I couldn't tell you for sure because I walked at intermission.
White-haired Kevin McCarthy—best-known as the star of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers—should have brought a touch of the magisterial to Arthur, but moments into the play, it's painfully obvious he doesn't know his lines. Making matters worse, he's arrogant about the fact that he's winging it: his stage mates (most of whom also trip over their dialogue and sleep-walk like their bodies have been snatched) try to help him out with a cue or two, but he actually has the gall to rebuff them. In front of the audience!
Director Eberhard Kohler's über-theatrical staging is fascinating, but his cast isn't up to the task, and he has little sense of pacing. The first act feels like it should run a quick 50 minutes max, but it drags out to a boring hour and 20-plus.
The technical aspects are better but often as self-indulgent as the acting: Danila Korogodsky's red-and-black metal prison of a set creates the right mood of despairing decay but needlessly obscures sight lines. Steffi Mayer's lighting paints the set with noirish shadow but so overdoes the fog machines and cigarette smoke that you'll want to consider bringing a respirator.
With those imaginative production values and the compelling politics of Christoph Hein's script going for it, I really wanted to like this play. Too bad McCarthy and his confederates—like the characters they're playing onstage—don't know when to call it a night.
Knights of the Round Table at California Repertory Company at the Edison Theatre, 213 E. Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 985-7000. Wed.-Thurs., 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through March 18. $15-$20.