Created Collaboratively by Jonathan Levin, Josh Luxenberg, and Joshua William Gelb
Produced by Sinking Ship Productions with the Tank
Off Off Broadway, Solo Show
Runs through 6.27.17
Connelly Theater, 220 East 4th Street
by Ran Xia on 6.12.17
Jonathan Levin in A Hunger Artist. Photo by Kelly Stuart.
BOTTOM LINE: Jonathan Levin is Kafka's hunger artist in this moving allegory of alienation and the danger of pride.
There once was an artist who determined to fast.
The show begins like Kafka's story, in broad strokes of nostalgia and a hint of whimsy, on a stage made to look dilapidated (Peiyi Wang's lavishly detailed designs): the wallpaper is peeling off, giving way to skeletons of reality peeking through phantasms of stormy clouds. A waltz from a distant memory plays from a manual gramophone, before harsh lights snap us into the present. And with that, the impresario (Jonathan Levin) drags out a trunk as big as himself, and begins to tell the tale of a hunger artist.
"In the last decades interest in hunger artists has declined considerably," he says, almost with a sigh, tossing aside an apple that's been clenched between his teeth. The whole thing used to be a spectacle, and he demonstrates the good old days with a Victorian miniature theatre. He tells the story with self-aware humor and disarming charm, like a cross between the characters of Will Eno and Charlie Chaplin, cracking himself up and referencing the hardship of a life in the theatre. The impresario decides that the tiny space doesn't do the story justice, and decides to bring audience members on stage to recreate the scene, or resurrect a memory. The audience soon assumes the places of the impresario and the other members of the "cast," and the threateningly large trunk bursts open, revealing a cage where the hunger artist (Levin again) sits, pale as a ghost with eyes like burning coal. It's a disturbing sight, to see celebrated the completion of yet another forty-day challenge, with joyous music and toasts of wine, next to a frail form that seems near death.
After that it's the seemingly never-ending cycle of the hunger artist demonstrating his endurance around the world, living on the edge of despair yet holding onto his pride, in the form of an unyielding cage and a strict schedule. And when the show no longer draws attention, the hunger artist hires himself to a circus, and continues to be the spectacle he is, in the only way he knows how. Except this time, he is no longer satisfied with the forty-day limit. The first time he reaches day forty-one, the joy is insurmountable, even if there's nobody to witness his achievement. In the end, all that's left of the hunger artist is a paper thin skeleton (Charlie Kanev and Sarah Nolan's puppet design), quickly forgotten and replaced by an exotic animal.
Levin embodies the title character in a phenomenal performance, showing the agility of a gymnast in this physically demanding role, and capturing the psychological deterioration of the isolated outsider who takes so much pride in being misunderstood that he becomes something of a nightmare. Elements of clowning are exploited at their best when Levin plays three characters at once, using the classic coat on a rack trick, to create the business transaction between the impresario, the circus manager, and the huger artist himself. Josh Luxenberg's script captures the essence of Kafka's haunting tale from 1922 and elevates the parable into something still relevant after almost a hundred years.
Joshua William Gelb's excellent direction ensures that although a solo performance, A Hunger Artist occupies almost every inch of the Connelly Theatre's spacious stage. There isn't a dull moment with the constantly shifting motifs, and the dazzling transformation Levin undergoes. Kate McGee's lighting design, unquestionably a highlight of the show, creates almost a magical presence of a painting being conjured and awakened.
It's an all-too-real allegory that will make the artists in the audience (no matter the genre) choke up, witnessing the diminishing attention given to the artist's Sisyphean toil. Art demands to be seen, especially when it comes to performance. Art also demands to be understood, and there lies the real tragedy of the hunger artist. His romanticized suffering is the perfect metaphor of the danger of self-alienation and pride.
(A Hunger Artist plays at the Connelly Theater, 220 East 4th Street, through June 27, 2017. The running time is 1 hour 10 minutes with no intermission. Performance dates and times vary; see schedule for details. Tickets are $15 - $35 and are available at thetanknyc.org.)
A Hunger Artist is by Josh Luxenberg, based on a story by Franz Kafka. Directed by Joshua William Gelb. Set and Costume Design is by Peiyi Wong. Lighting Design is by Kate McGee. Sound Design is by M Florian Staab. Puppet Design is by Charlie Kanev and Sarah Nolan. Props and Toy Theater is by Ariel Lauryn. Production Manager and Tech Director is Will Jennings.
The cast is Jonathan Levin. Additional voices are by Erik Lochtefeld, Peter Russo, and Jes Bedwinek.