A Hunger Artist

A Hunger Artist is one of Franz Kafka’s most difficult stories. The writer’s concern in this story is the nature of the artist, his relationship to his public, his motivations. Kafka’s not concerned here with the ordinary guy, the Everyman that he writes about in so many of his other stories.

The title character is a performer whose art is simply to fast. He would fast for up to 40 days, sitting in a cage in public, but that’s the maximum length of time that his impresario would allow. More recently however, he’s separated from his impresario and he’s been forced to join a circus. He’s made to wear a silly collar and a party hat. It’s demeaning, but at least he can fast without limit.

Like all of Kafka’s stories, this is an extended metaphor, without a suggestion about what stands on the other side of the metaphor. Kafka’s mysterious, suggestive, dream-like prose is at its best, heavy with connotation.

And there really were hunger artists, in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s been conjectured that Kafka saw one. One of the oddest manifestations of the performing arts, certainly.

The Tank and Sinking Ship Productions have presented a stage adaptation of the story at The Connelley Theater. Josh Luxenberg is named as “Writer”. His script stays close to the original story, and the play is engrossing throughout its 90 minutes. It’s been designed so that all the roles are played by one actor, in this production Jon Levin.

The play opens with Mr. Levin in a fat suit as the impresario, addressing us. He introduces the hunger artist as a tiny puppet on a little puppet stage with tiny puppet observers. It’s toy theater. Then, after realizing that the audience can hardly see the puppets, he leaves the stage, and reappears as the emaciated hunger artist himself, in a cage on the bare stage. For much of the remainder of the play we’re aware of the impresario as a disembodied voice. The fasting man never speaks.

Five audience members are recruited briefly to play observers, doctors and the impresario himself. So far, it’s funny, and it’s very smart of Mr. Luxenberg to open the show with some laughs. He’s clearing our minds for the weighty theater that’s coming.

The remainder of the show explores Kafka’s complex vision, and we follow the hunger artist as his lot deteriorates, he joins the carnival, and is finally found neglected and emaciated by circus staff. After fasting for God-knows-how-long, he dies, represented by a feeble puppet manipulated by Mr. Levin playing the staff man.

It’s a wonderful production! After the opening sequences, lasting about a half hour, it retains the tone of the story. It lifts much directly from the story, such as an early line that Kafka opened with: “In the past two decades interest in public starvation has declined enormously.”

Jon Levin gives us marvelous work. He speaks with a heavy Eastern European accent as the benign, plodding impresario and speaks American as the kinetic carnival barker and as the (briefly-appearing) staff man. The impresario has humor and a personal history. He’s a marked contrast to the silent hunger artist, who has a mournful, forlorn gaze. But the fasting man is not monochromatic, and Mr. Levin expresses his desperation, anger and disappointment silently. He also does a neat trick of indicating other characters by putting his arms through the sleeves of overcoats on a coat rack.

The show is directed by Joshua William Gelb. He’s done a masterful job of purveying the script delicately. He expresses its humor and its gravity with great skill. Even during its most adagio passages, the show is absorbing.

There are a few incongruous sequences during which the hunger artist travels between cities, and, inexplicably, he’s physically robust during the trip, even doing a cartwheel. And as is nearly always the case, casting a single actor in multiple roles really serves no dramatic purpose. But no matter. A Hunger Artist is a terrific, moody production, like Kafka at once emotive and intellectual. A Hunger Artist is great work!

Steve Capra
June 2017

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