How it’s New York: The show takes place at the Connelly Theater, one of those theaters inside an old school (?) you may never
have known was there but is wonderful, and is presented by The Tank’s Flint & Tinder series, which makes space available to artists.
How it’s Irish: It’s Celto-Slav, really. But the Irish do have an affinity for Kafka.
Sinking Ship Productions adaptation of Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” makes you want to stand up and cheer.
It’s only June and I’m calling it now as possibly the best solo performance of the year.
It’s smart. It’s funny (and Kafka is really funny. Seriously, he is. The word “Kafkaesque” really should mean dread AND FUNNY, not just scary as Hell. Though it’s scary as Hell too).
And it’s highly theatrical.
Inventive. Fresh. Physical.
Presented by The Tank, at the Connelly Theater (one of those theaters in an old building you probably have never been to), this is a work that is everything new theater should be.
And astonishingly, all of the roles are played by performer Jonathan Levin, including the fat producer, and the skeletal Hunger Artist.
The show, which had a workshop production at the New Ohio Theater Producers Club in 2016, adapts Kafka’s short story about a man who was a popular carnival act– starvation — until the fad for admiring people who don’t eat died off. The piece was devised by Levin, writer Josh Luxenberg, and director Joshua William Gelb.
It’s a strange, haunting story, with a strange and haunting moral.
The show is presented by The Tank for their Flint & Tinder Series. Bravo to The Tank for keeping work like this alive.
If it were only a kind of reader’s theater the show would be fine– and for the first 15 minutes it looks as though that’s what the show is going to be. Levin comes on as a fat manager telling the story of the Hunger Artist. He uses a miniature puppet stage with paper figures to describe how the artist appeared, how women came onstage to feed him, how a doctor examined him. It’s pleasant, but not exciting. The manager uses an old record player (Props and Toy Theater by Jonathan Levin). There are variations on “After the Ball.” He talks about the fad for Hunger Artists, and how the crowds began to wane.
The manager comes into the audience, realizes the images are too small, and invites audience members onstage to play the roles.
Narration tells the drafted audience what to do– open the cage, for example– and just as the “doctors” are trying to figure out how, the narration tells them. This joke is repeated a few times and it’s funny each time.
When this bit ends, we go into the story itself.
Now we see that the red proscenium curtain is there on purpose. The backdrop of clouds isn’t just left over from some other show, it’s dynamic and gorgeous (set and costume design by Peiyi Wong, lighting design by Kate McGee). From here on in, the show alternatively startled me, made me laugh, made me want to give the Hunger Artist a hug, frightened me. We aren’t watching a show, we’re part of this show, complicit in the carnival.
Levin has tremendous plasticity: to show us the routine of his earlier life going from gig to gig across Europe, hemimes getting onto a train, getting into his Hunger Artist Cage, pulling dates off a calendar until he’s reached the deadline of 40, resisting gruel, eating it, jumping to the top of it (the athleticism is impressive), and then– doing it all again.
Eventually, the Hunger Artist signs on with a circus. We see him signing on: Levin and Gelb have figured out a way for him to play several roles at the same time, with a coat on a stand, one arm in a sleeve, and a handshake. I’ve seen a lot of shows. I’ve never seen anything like that. Levin manages to show by his handshake who is who and their attitudes to it. There’s even a goodbye hug. The Hunger Artist is eager to join, because he wants to fast longer than he’s been allowed with his manager.
We see that the Hunger Artist isn’t much of a draw as a sideshow act. When a man recognizes what he is, he immediately begans suggesting he’s a fraud– and the cruel words echo.
The days keep getting pulled off. The lights grow stark. The music, eerie (sound design by M. Florian Staab, based on original design by Joshua William Gelb).
Gelb’s direction hits every note– the gaiety, the dread, the pity. Luxenberg’s script is smart and not just funny but witty.
There is also creative puppetry, designed by Charlie Kanev and Sarah Nolen.
Kafka’s story touches on the drive for fame or admiration, artistry, the fickleness of fans, the search for fulfillment, the cages we all inhabit.
Even if you don’t understand it, it touches you– I first read it at 18. For some reason during my freshman year a group of us read bedtime stories aloud for a week or so. I picked this one. (Year later I adapted Kafka’s “The Trial” for a theatre in Prague.) This is all by way of saying, for me to love this is really, for me to love this.
My companion, Michelle Woods, has written “Kafka in Translation.” She loved it too.
“A Hunger Artist” is a one-man show of deep beauty, remarkable invention, compassionate understanding, and sure theatricality. It shows Kafka’s dread in a deeply theatrical way, while also showing his terrified and bewildered love for humanity, and his humor
(If you do know the story, you may be wondering, how are they going to do the panther? it’s a tiny panther on a record player, spinning round and round. This is not only clever theatrically, it’s thematically right: just as a live panther paces up and down we see the miniature spin around and around, getting nowhere.)
After its run in NYC, “A Hunger Artist” is off to the Edinburgh fringe festival in August, where we predict it’s going to be a fringe first. When it comes back to New York– and we fervently hope it will– it might be hard to get tickets.