Stage: Wednesday, October 17, 2002
Kafka - A Hunger Artist\r\nFri-Sun thru Oct. 26 at Hip Pocket Theatre, 1620 Las Vegas Tr N, FW. $10-$12. 817-246-9775.
The Hunger Guy

Performance art meets humanity in Hip Pocket’s new Kafkaesque production.


During his abbreviated lifetime, Franz Kafka was denied — and denied himself — many things. His father, a loud, boisterous businessman in Prague, contemptuously ignored the introverted Franz, who was plagued by health problems both psychosomatic and congenital. (Theirs remains one of the most hotly psychoanalyzed parent-child relationships in 20th-century letters). Later, the author had a series of brief affairs and broken engagements, but never a sustained romantic intimacy. And finally, he toiled as an insurance clerk with little ambition for his art beyond writing for small literary journals and producing limited-edition printings.

So it’s easy to get all Western-Lit wonky and draw parallels between Kafka’s life and one of his final pieces, the very-short short story “A Hunger Artist.” The tale features yet another quintessential Kafka loner whose fortunes are buffeted by absurd fate and fickle humanity. Here, the protagonist is a kind of early-20th-century performance artist who tours Europe, drawing audiences to see the emaciated man in a cage who fasts for 40 days at a time — with only occasional sips of water to moisten his lips — and yet stands before them, alive and alert beyond all comprehension of how the human body works. Denying himself nourishment feeds his pride and fuels an inexplicable dedication to beating his own 40-day fasting record. Was this Kafka’s bleakly funny autobiography, elevating all his unmet needs to self-delusional artistic glory?

Hip Pocket Theatre director Johnny Simons and his youthful adapter, the performer and choreographer Jeffrey Farrell, are happy to play literary wonks in their staging called Kafka — A Hunger Artist. The addition of the writer’s name to the title is more than just a marketing tool. The accomplished Farrell stars as Franz Kafka, with more than just extensive theatrical experience to support his performance. Images of the real-life author projected onto screens behind Farrell underscore the fact that the resemblance between the two bypasses “striking” and heads straight into “creepy.” Face and hands working a hundred miles a minute in German Expressionist mode, Farrell narrates the tragicomic life of the fictional starving artist, played by Michael Goggans. Juxtaposing the author and his creation creates a reverse dynamic. You assume Kafka will be the puppetmaster and the Hunger Artist the puppet, but Farrell is the one who’s bouncy and artificially boyish in his vocal delivery and movements. Goggans sits or stands beside him, mostly silent, practically invisible save for his shocking body. Hip Pocket has cast perfectly to type — Goggans looks like a walking skeleton, his skin stretched as tightly over his ribs and pelvic bone as the circus tights he wears. Giving almost all the lines to Kafka could’ve turned this Hunger Artist into a prop, but Goggans generates considerable mystery with little expression. With the Hunger Artist as an onstage death’s head muse, the director and adapter’s intentions are made manifest — this is Kafka’s tale. And at the close of the play, when Farrell comes crawling toward the audience on all fours with fangs bared, a reincarnation has occurred that parallels Kafka’s posthumous resurrection as a creature of modern literature who commands great respect.

Let’s take a break from the grad-school conjecture. Viewing this play from a caustically humorous angle, Hip Pocket’s production reminded me of an early Steve Martin tv skit that parodied The Elephant Man. Martin donned long trunk and big floppy ears to portray The Elephant Guy, a temperamental Victorian freak who’s so obsessed with his “art” — staggering around a straw-lined cage for paying gawkers — that he’s completely oblivious to the pity and horror he inspires. He bitches about his marquee status, and even makes a pass at the English stage actress who comes to visit him as a humanitarian act. Adapter Farrell and director Simons have retained Kafka’s only slightly more subtle existential comedy in their live character study of a self-appointed artist who wails constantly about how the masses don’t appreciate him. “Just try to explain the art of fasting!” Farrell, as the author, sneers while Michael Goggans sits cross-legged in the straw like a crumpled scarecrow, his hollowed-out eyes radiating a small fire of ironic vanity. Given the alarming appearance of Goggans’ physiognomy, many of the audience members seemed hesitant to laugh. And it’s true, you can’t chuckle at Hip Pocket’s engrossing, brutishly stylish freak show without a little squeamishness. Still, I’m sure everyone involved in this production would be happy to elicit such a conflicted response. It’s the sound you hear every time you open the page of one of Kafka’s stories.

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