Friday, April 5, 2013

Off Broadway: Kafka's Monkey

Kathryn Hunter in KAFKA'S MONKEY.  Photo by Keith Pattison.

In A Report to an Academy by Franz Kafka, Red Peter, an ape captured on the Gold Coast of Africa by a German hunting party, eventually gains his release from captivity by learning to emulate human behavior to such a degree that, as he put it, he “reached the cultural level of an average European.”  Which means that not only did he learn to spit, smoke, drink and speak but that he even learned to do a little soft shoe on the side!  Subsequently asked to address a distinguished group on the subject of his prior life as an ape, Red Peter demurred, using the opportunity instead to expound on the human condition itself.

Kafka’s story has lent itself to various interpretations.  It may be read as a commentary on man’s inflated sense of his own importance, oblivious to his true “ape-nature.” It may be seen as an attack on the arrogance of the scientific community in particular or on the self-proclaimed superiority of supposed “intellectuals” in general.  One might focus on the illusory nature of “freedom” (Red Peter questions, for example, the “freedom” of trapeze artists to do anything other than what they have been choreographed to do in their rigidly structured routines and he makes a particular point of emphasizing that he never sought “freedom” for himself but only “a way out”).  Thought may be given to the choices one must make in life when there appear to be no good choices at all (for Red Peter that came down to a choice between the Zoological Gardens and the variety stage).  Some have read the play as addressing the issue of the exploitation of indigenous peoples under colonial regimes.  And special emphasis has been placed on the story’s being a satirical treatment of the assimilation of Jews into European society (an insight which, to my mind, seems particularly valid since the story was first published in Der Jude, a Zionist magazine edited by Martin Buber).

These interpretations are not mutually exclusive, of course.  Indeed, I think that there is merit to all of them which may well be what makes the story so gripping: it provokes us to think deeply not of only one issue but of very many.

Colin Teevan adapted Kafka’s story for the stage as Kafka’s Monkey and the play, starring Kathryn Hunter as Red Peter, opened at the Young Vic Theatre in London in 2009 to rave reviews.  Now Theatre for a New Audience, in association with Baryshnikov Arts Center, has brought the play to the United States, where it is premiering at the Baryshnikov Arts Center on West 37th Street in midtown Manhattan.

The play itself is a fine adaptation of Kafka’s work and on the stage it is brought to life in a way that the printed page alone simply cannot accomplish.  Less than an hour long, it is both dramatic and comedic, thought provoking and entertaining.  But it is Ms Hunter’s solo performance as Red Peter that is truly extraordinary.

Dressed in white tie, tails and a bowler hat, but ambling on stage like a chimpanzee, Ms Hunter is neither man nor ape (or perhaps she is both), sometimes emphasizing the human aspect of her dual personality and at other times the simian.  She cavorts about the stage, climbs the walls, contorts her body into positions one would have thought possible for an ape but not for one of our own species.  She engages her audience, shaking hands with one audience member (as only an ape might shake hands) in a gesture of openness.  She shares a banana with another   She inveighs upon a third to safeguard her flask of rum.  She grooms yet a fourth, delicately picking the lice from his hair!

And she provides the entire audience with a wonderful hour’s entertainment that will long be remembered and remarked upon as one of the high points of the theatrical stage.

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