Sinking Ship Productions isn’t actually a Baltimore based production but I will bend our rules a little here. It is a travelling show that made a brief stop at Baltimore’s Theater Project and I am so stoked I got together my fellow Kafka-addicted friend and went to enjoy.
The premise is based on a short story by Kafka of the same name. In a post-war Europe, a man starves himself in a cage for 40 days as a public spectacle and charges money to see the withering sight. The Impresario (also played by Jonathon Levin) stops his carnage at forty days for health reasons but the artist feels he could go longer. He ultimately sells himself to a circus where he is relegated to the forgotten, the world has moved beyond such spectacles and the plays ends on an odd note.
Jonathon Levin is a one-man show, and damn if he isn’t worth every penny. He enters as the Impresario, fat with a white washed face and dilapidated suit. As he tells the story, he uses props and a marionette theater from a suitcase (really, where does he get these wonderful toys?). Once he realizes the audience is lacking in the visual department with this small venue he calls on audience members to play the other roles. I had the unique opportunity to be in the show! My brethren (we both adore Kafka, so our little dork hearts nearly leapt from our chests) and I took to the stage and followed the directions, earning a glass of pretty damn fine red wine to enjoy at our seats and the memories that will haunt my dreams for some time to come.
The beginning of the play is marked by the precision of macabre humor. Please laugh. Kafka is a literary giant because of the way he zips together integral things that don’t jive- like dark humor and comedy, bleak life purpose and jokes about food, and human nature with cosmic irony. The play’s humor dies off as we become more and more absorbed in the fate of the hunger artist as he hones his craft and travels about Europe. The scene with the two coat racks at the Impresario and Circus Manager (both played later by Jonathon Levin too) where he slips his arm into each to bring them to life is mesmerizing. It is a such a simple device but I couldn’t look away. The costume changes by the by- holy shit! He would vanish for what felt like a second and come back completely transformed- the team backstage must be pit crew fast! He was as shady as the circus manager, as he was fat and greedy as the impresario, and as vulnerable and dejected and thin as he was the hunger artist. He was truly a master at shifting roles in the blink of an eye.
I would be curious what others with no history of Kafka think of this production. I could see it again to be honest- but I am somewhat obsessed with the author. The word “Kafkaesque” has entered our vernacular to mean nightmarish in quality, like a Kafka novella, but I argue it should mean darkness punctuated with flippancy, an awareness of person juxtaposed with jocularity and an end so poignant and sorrowful it leaves a small hole in your soul.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? If this comes to your neck of the woods- for goodness sake GO! And sit up front, and get called on stage, and laugh and enjoy the amazing nature of Kafka’s work and Jonathon Levin’s unbelievable performance. I am praying to the literary patron saint Max Brod, who defied Kafka’s deathbed order to burn all his work- thank you Max for saving these magnificent stories and allowing the world to share in the mind of a warped but genius man. (I)
90-minute running time without intermission. At Theatre Project 12/14-12/17 only.