Boisterously funny and chokingly sad, Sinking Ship Productions’ new adaptation of Franz Kafka’s short story “A Hunger Artist” follows the original rather closely, yet through pure showmanship it defies expectation at almost every turn. Written by Josh Luxenberg and directed by Joshua William Gelb, the solo performance by Jon Levin, a gifted physical comic and movement artist, uses puppets, props, audience participants, delightfully clever stagecraft, and a combination of enactment and narration to present Kafka’s story intact but amplified, with a dry self-awareness.
The Artist of Kafka’s tale was one of a successful class of performers who would publicly fast for up to 40 days for large audiences throughout Europe and beyond. Kafka’s fictional exemplar fell on hard times when entertainment fashions changed and his sort of act became a relic. Devolved to a mostly-ignored circus sideshow attraction – in this version, a garish American carnival that Baz Luhrmann would appreciate – he far exceeds the 40-day limit enforced by his erstwhile impresario. But he does so unappreciated, and dies after confessing the true, ironic motivation for his choice of career.
By turns a puppet show, a Chaplin-esque mime comedy, an audience-participation event, and a self-referential actor’s confessional, the show wields a wild assortment of theatrical tools with a knowing wink. Beginning with a bare stage, it slowly deploys props, music, sound, and lighting to build the Hunger Artist’s life story and milieu, one rattling train ride at a time. Starting as a kind of roly-poly emcee, he portrays in turn the emaciated Hunger Artist, the impresario, and the circus manager, turning props into other characters as needed.
As Kafka depicted, hunger artistry declined after the 1880s with changing times. Indelible images of concentration camp victims have perhaps stamped out any possibility of a revival of the art. But feats of endurance remain popular; witness the works of David Blaine, Marina Abramovic and others. A Hunger Artist calls forth from the pages of a book a lost early form of performance art. Critics and philosophers may debate what the figure of the hunger artist may have represented, but on stage at the Connelly Theater he is a distillation of humanity at its strongest and weakest, noblest and bleakest.
A Hunger Artist runs through June 27 at the Connelly Theater, 220 E. 4 St. For tickets visit The Tank.