Monday, March 16, 2015

Kafka's Quest


Kafka’s Quest
by Lu Hauser
directed by Manfred Bormann
Presented by Theater for the New City

In Kafka’s Quest, playwright Lu Hauser conflates Franz Kafka with his most recognizable character, Gregor Samsa, the anti-hero in the story The Metamorphosis. Kafka and the fictitious Samsa each lived/lives with his parents and a sister (Kafka had three sisters, actually). The character’s name is Samsa, but he’s just as much Kafka as he is that character. This sort of devise, this referral to literature, demands a lot of playwrighting skill, and it’s likely to fail. Ms. Hauser, however, handles it deftly.

This Samsa also reflects Kafka’s life in his relationship with a couple of performers in the Yiddish theater, characters based as well on actual people, Itzhak Lowy and Mme. Trassik. The split stage on Anna Yates’ nice, spare set reflects their interpersonal environments.

Throughout the play, we see Samsa writing material relating to his overbearing father, material that would become Kafka’s book Letter to his Father. During the course of the play, inspired by his relationship with his two actor friends, he writes the short story Hunger Artist. The play culminates in his writing The Metamorphosis.

Ms. Hauser has a talent for character. Also for the casual allusion: the father plants the idea of The Metamorphosis in Samsa’s head by calling him a dung beetle. She’s less skilled, however, in structure. The two scenarios remain separate almost throughout the play. Late in the play the plot begins to develop as a link forms between the family and the actors. But the initiative is never developed. Samsa/Kafka writes The Metamorphosis and the play suddenly ends.

Kafka’s Quest is very well served by the excellent company. Director Manfred Bormann keeps a brisk pace; the show never drags, never rushes. It’s never either heavy-handed or obscure.

The cast is marvelous, with never a false step. Dana Watkins, who plays Samsa/Kafka, is a particularly fine actor. His character is clearly defined, burdened in his home, wary of life, savoring the company of his friends. His acting technique is solid, his emotional life grounded and fluid.

Kafka’s Quest must confound audience members not familiar with Kafka’s writing. But for the rest of us it’s very satisfying, erudite and enjoyable.
Steve Capra
March 2015