Charles Herrera and John Corr in DET's production of Kafka's Joke. Credit: Nathan Cox

Good theatrical productions are always entertaining, but the top-notch ones are also educational. They expand our horizons—and make us think about something in a brand-new way.

Desert Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of Kafka’s Joke does all of that—in spades.

Going into the show, my knowledge of Franz Kafka was limited. I thought of him as a German writer in the early 1900s (he was actually Czech) who wrote really bizarre stuff (that part is true). This story revolves around Kafka’s real deathbed request that his best friend, Max Brod, burn thousands of pages of his unpublished manuscripts. Kafka didn’t think the work was any good and did not want the general public to see it. Brod disagreed, and opted not to destroy the writings. Instead, he spent the rest of his life promoting Kafka’s work, succeeding with the publication of three of his novels, including The Trial. Today, Kafka is viewed as one of the 20th century’s most influential writers—but he died largely unknown.

When Brod died in 1968, his confusing will seemingly indicated that he wished to leave the manuscripts to his longtime secretary (and apparent lover), Esther Hoffe. Both Germany and the state of Israel later laid claim to Kafka’s work, resulting in a decades-long legal battle with Esther and her daughter, Eva. The big question was: Who owns Kafka? In 2016, the Supreme Court of Israel ultimately decided it was Israel’s national library.

In Kafka’s Joke, the story is told with great humor—through the eyes of Kafka’s ghost.

The cast here is uniformly excellent; each actor plays multiple roles with great skill. John Corr is a marvel as Kafka. Tall and lanky with an extremely expressive face, he nervously paces the stage, full of angst and insecurity. As a 19-year-old virgin with a law degree living at home with his parents, Kafka knows he must write. He works at an insurance company, but the literary world is where he belongs, despite his deep insecurity about his talent. Corr infuses the character with great pathos and humor; he’s simply a joy to watch.

As his best friend, Max, Charles Herrera is superb. Best known in the valley as an extraordinary vocalist, Herrera here exhibits his strong acting chops in a non-singing role. He exudes charisma and charm onstage. The brotherly love he has for his best friend is palpable, especially as he’s torn between the desire to honor Kafka’s deathbed request and the urge to share his friend’s brilliance with the world. The chemistry between Herrera and Corr is phenomenal.

The always-fabulous Melanie Blue does not disappoint here. As Franz’ mother and later as Brod’s secretary/lover, Esther, she’s wonderful. Though she deftly handles serious moments, Blue is a born comic. It frequently seems like she’s about to burst into giggles, and she makes us want to laugh right along with her. Every time she exits the stage, we wish she would stay just a little bit longer.

Jaci Davis is a revelation as Eva. Like Herrera, she is known in the valley as a consummate musical performer, with numerous awards as both a singer and musical director. She makes a strong impression in one of her first straight acting roles. Late in the play, nearly unrecognizable in a long gray wig, she holds the audience spellbound with several long monologues about the trial over the ownership of Kafka’s work.

Rounding out the cast is Larry Dyekman, handling multiple roles, including Franz’ father, Hermann. He is a chameleon, adroitly losing himself in each character. He’s a solid performer, an asset to any production.

Melanie Blue, John Corr and Larry Dyekman in DET’s production of Kafka’s Joke. Credit: Nathan Cox

Kudos go to Jerome Elliott Moskowitz for his skillful direction. He keeps the story moving along nicely and elicits strong performances from his actors. While the script is very funny at times, there’s also a lot of darkness. Kafka believed that the human condition was tragic and absurd, and that life really has no meaning; his own life was cut short by tuberculous at age 40. Moskowitz does a masterful job of balancing those themes.

The minimalistic black and red set, with just a table and two chairs, works well. The overhead slides depicting Kafka and his early life were quite effective. Early in the play, there was a slight issue with lighting; Corr seemed to be a bit in the dark at times during his opening monologue as Kafka. Thankfully, the problem was resolved after a few minutes.

Whether you’re a Kafka devotee or only have a passing knowledge of him, you will enjoy DET’s production of Kafka’s Joke. Terrific acted, it’s dark, funny and fascinating. Go see it.

Desert Ensemble Theatre’s production of Kafka’s Joke will be performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 19, at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, 2300 E. Baristo Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $35, and the running time is 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit

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Bonnie Gilgallon

Bonnie Gilgallon, a theater reviewer for the Independent since 2013, is an award-winning stage actress and singer who performs at many venues around the valley. She also hosts “The Culture Corner,”...

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