Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Theatre for a New Audience

Review | Kafka’s Monkey | Based on “A Report to an Academy” by Franz Kafka | Adapted by Colin Teevan | Starring Kathyrn Hunter | Directed by Walter Meierjohann | Theatre for a New Audience

Kathryn Hunter in Kafka's Monkey.  Photo:  Keith Pattison

Kathryn Hunter in Kafka’s Monkey.  Photo:  Keith Pattison

Kafka’s Monkey is original, creative and one of the great theater experiences.  It brings together a great author, a talented playwright, and a brilliant actor so, after the fact, one might say “how could it be otherwise.”  Still it’s totally unexpected.   After all, a play consisting of an invited speech delivered by an African chimpanzee to an august Academy is … well, unlooked for.

A captured chimpanzee, to make the best of the violent situation which robbed him of his freedom, has through diligent observation and imitation adopted the skills, manners and characteristics of a human being.  He’s here tonight, five years since his capture and arrival in England, to present an invited address to a lofty, probably scientific, Academy audience — and yes, we are that audience.  His know-how and referential world are completely human, his British English perfect.   Under his white tie and tails, though, and in his movements, we can see that his bodily transformation to human is less complete:  he has a chimpanzee’s long arms, broad chest, and swinging gate.   His name is Red Peter — and therein hangs a tale.

Kathryn Hunter’s portrayal of two natures in a single being, and her delivery of his speech in which he narrates the details of his capture, his gruesome shipboard journey, and his brilliant “humanizing” adaptation is among the most memorable performances in theater.  A petite woman acts the role of a chimpanzee who’s acting the role of man.  Think about that.  She creates the character and his world.  In calm, discursive moments, Red Peter is most thoroughly the man — his right palm pressed to the small of his back in an elegant, upper class gesture.   But when the emotion of his narrative builds, his chimpanzee physicality presses forward as he takes positions that are contorted for a human, natural for a chimp, or — with a ladder prop — leaps across branches and hangs precipitously among the trees.

Hunter makes her dancer’s strength and flexibility into the very essence of a chimp.  She conveys a Chaplinesque poignancy in conveying the life events and psychic travels of the dislocated, ingenious primate, thrust from Eden.  As the adaptor Colin Teevan notes in the program, “… using his own brutal experience of the ‘world of me’ as a mirror, he deftly inverts the situation to make his speech a reflection upon humanity.”  Humans come out pretty loathsome but the earth is stuck with them.  We’re stuck with ourselves.

Like Metamorphosis and others of Kafka’s animal stories, A Report to an Academy, has received as many interpretations as there are interpreters.  Just as the chimp survives by using intelligence and self-discipline to adapt to the more powerful humans at a sacrifice of aspects of his true self,  so humans have survived in the face of all-powerful nature by using intelligence and self-discipline at the expense of their natural instincts;  and, colonial peoples have survived in relation to their colonial masters in parallel ways; and Jews (since Kafka was Jewish) have survived and adapted similarly in the context of a dominant Christian culture, and so on.

The many interpretations are most all “right” and able to co-exist, because the story is a parable of power relationships.  Its resonant layers of meaning, its philosophical, political and psychic range, and its strength of characterization, beautifully transmitted by the Colin Treevan, underlie this compelling theater experience.

This is for sure:  during the narrative, the large audience was silent and intensely focused — except for moments of laughter, and actor-audience interaction.  With all its seriousness, Kafka’s Monkey is a comedy, or much like a comedy, and true to comedies, it ends in marriage — of a most surprising,  and inevitable, kind.

This is the New York premier of the London production by the Young Vic.  It’s a privilege to see Kafka’s Monkey and it’s here for a short run so I’d say — get to it!

Kafka’s Monkey plays at the Baryshnikov Arts Center on West 37th Street in Manhattan through April 17.

Review | Notes From Underground | Adapted from Dostoyevsky’s Novel | By Bill Camp and Robert Woodruff | Directed by Robert Woodruff | Yale Repertory Theatre Production Presented by Theatre For A New Audience and Baryshnikov Arts Center

Dostoyevsky’s short novel, Notes from Underground of 1864, is a gripping vision of the terrors of psychological isolation and the evils that can flow from it.  Often called the first existentialist novel, it’s a remarkable early unrolling of ideas that will become key in modern thought.  It’s a powerful and prescient book.

Some fine talent has gone into this misguided and tedious adaptation for theater of Notes from Underground.  The unnamed Man, an impoverished former government clerk with a tortured psyche, in his lonely room, recounts two personal, interwoven narratives.  In one, he’s humiliated by men, in the other, he humiliates a woman — what creative clarity in that!  Running through are the Man’s meditations and utterances on existence.   What goes wrong in this dramatization?

For one thing, the power of the novel depends on the power of thought and for that Dostoyevsky created a highly intelligent and articulate — if rambling — narrator.  Notes  expresses overarching ideas, from existentialism to Nietschian hyper-individualism to the Freudian vision of the unconscious, and then some.  But in the play, the transcending and provocative ideas are so trimmed they sound trite.  The character of the Man is also diminished in that, while agaonized and nasty, he’s not particularly intelligent.  This is not an anti-hero:  this is a jerk.

The play does not draw on the inherent romanticism in Dostoyevsky’s novel:  it’s too brightly conceived.  The room, as if in purposeful opposition to the ideas of darkness associated with “underground,” is glaringly lit, and cluttered with mounds of frothy white cotton, supposed to suggest snow, as well as the miasma of the swamp on which St. Petersburg was built (and evidently in the Man’s mind), but net effect, the set looks like a department store the day after the Christmas sales.  Bill Camp as the Man looks too well fed, too much the satisfied sensualist;  he throws himself into the part with great energy and produces some subtle introspection, but eventually resorts to mannerisms that are effective once but are over-repeated.

Notes from Underground plays at the Baryshnikov Center on NYC’s West Side, through November 28th.

Review | The Grand Inquisitor, from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov | Directed by Peter Brook | Starring Bruce Myers | New York Theatre Workshop & Theatre for a New Audience

Did Dostoevsky read this over before he published it?

It’s hard to take on Dostoyevsky but this really is somewhat sophomoric. Bruce Myers was too appealing and spry for the aged Grand Inquisitor with terrifying power over life, death and torture — and that’s the whole piece, a dramatic monolog. Christ just sits and listens with his back to the audience until the end when he gets up, gives the Grand Inquisitor a kiss (love? betrayal?) and walks off, released from the Inquisitor’s threat to burn him at the stake, presumably because we all know that never happened. The whole does not add up to a “great argument” as people like to say, and as  was repeated often at a recent roundtable.

Christ, we’re told, arrived in Seville at the height of the Inquisition because he felt sorry about all the people burning, and starts off by bringing sight to a blind man and raising a child from the dead, causing an excited and hopeful stir but the Grand Inquisitor soon puts a stop to that, arrests Christ and in a prison visit speechifies to him for 52 minutes. And when all is said and done, they continue to burn people in Seville.

The Grand Inquisitor’s claim is that Christ isn’t really good for people, the Catholic Church is, and Christ’s “freedom” spoils the Church’s hold on people’s obedience and faith.  The Inquisitor’s argument includes the idea that Christ spurned miracles, although they are useful for the Church — this IN SPITE OF THE FACT that Christ’s first acts in Seville are miracles.  The Inquisitor’s argument is full of holes.  He says it’s better for people to have food than freedom but there are at least two problems there.  1) The Church hasn’t ensured food for the people and 2) why Christ’s “freedom to chose” interferes with people getting food isn’t taken up.

This is not, generally, an ambiguous piece of writing. There are two basic interpretations. 1) It’s an expression of what he saw as the hocus pocus of the Catholic Church (Dostoyevsky being a strong believer in the Russian Orthodox Church)  2) It’s prophetic of future totalitarian states which give food to people at the expense of their freedom, robbing them of their freedom of choice.  Since a totalitarian state with those attitudes did in fact rise in Russia after Dostoyevsky, that gives, I suppose, some kind of credibility to his “prophetic vision” but the connection’s pretty lose.

Dostoyevsky is a great novelist because he creates vivid characters with heart wrenching desires, passions and quests.  In this Grand Inquisitor segment, which is an anomalous drop-in to the novel, although it does have an effect on the characters outside and beyond it, the Inquisitor is a mouthpiece for ideas rather than a character.  Things are said well — this is a great writer after all — but they are not thought out well.

For what Ben Brantley calls an “immortal  parable of of worldly and spiritual power,” none surpasses the character driven, situation driven argument between Creon and Antigone in Sophocles’ Antigone (see critique of The Oedipus Cycle below) — though I wouldn’t want to see that played out of context either.

The Grand Inquisitor presented by Theatre for a New Audience & New York Theatre Workshop, directed by Peter Brook, plays at Theatre for a New Audience on East 4th Street in New York City through November 30.

Nearby restaurant favorite:  Cucina di Pesce, 87 East 4th Street

NEXT:  Black Watch at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn

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