Franz Kafka's "Hunger Artist" Eats Up the Stage, "Woody Sez" Tells Guthrie's Folksy Tale

06/08/2017 09:50 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2017

Performer Jon Levin, writer Josh Luxenberg and director Joshua William Gelb have taken A Hunger Artist, Franz Kafka’s difficult allegory (which of Kafka’s allegories isn’t difficult?) and wrought it as a spellbinding one-man-playing-several-characters piece for The Tank at the Connelly.

In the Viennese author’s short-ish tale, a man appears representing a popular late 19th-century-early 20th-century carnival performer known in big and then increasingly smaller towns as a hunger artist. Men (few, if any, women participated) refused to eat for something like 40 days, as crowds gathered to check out their wrinkling skin, increasingly protruding bones and even somewhat visible beating hearts.

Kafka seized on these exhibitionists to ruminate on what he often committed himself to ruminating on: existential angst in the 20th century, as it took hold during and after World War I. (Metamorphosis is another well-known spin on the theme. It, too, has been adapted for the stage, and more than once.)

Through the action, which Luxenberg has quite carefully lifted from Kafka, the hunger artist in his commitment not to swallow as much as a crumb—while buying sumptuous breakfasts for his monitors—raises questions about humanity’s compulsion to flirt with self-extermination. Indeed, as he sits in his 5x5x5-foot cage, Kafka’s hunger artist disdains being limited to 40 days, preferring to deny himself sustenance for much longer.

This hunger artist is held to the limit by an impresario who’s noticed that customer interest wanes after 40 days, and here the chameleon Levin plays both hunger artist and impresario. For that matter, the impresario is first seen after a mock up of the stage is shown and an interlocutor (also Levin, of course) has decided the model is too small for the audience to see. Therefore, a substitute impresario and four other members of the audience are impounded. The chosen four take on the roles of the two doctors who examine the hunger artist at the end of the 40 days and the two ladies who will escort the hunger artist from his barred temporary home.

All the preliminary activity is amusing and remains amusing through the hunger artist’s first emergence, but at that point the tone changes to something grimmer—an atmospheric change that silently suggests there are things in life that, when studied more closely, are no laughing matter. In other words, while Luxenberg, Gelb and Levin spotlight the hunger artist for his symbolic import, a jibe or two is aimed at patrons—Oops, it’s implied, we’re all caught laughing at something not unlike a Kathy Griffin misstep.

What The Hunger Artist is—and is on steroids—is Levin’s tour de force. He hooks the audience with his initial appearance as that interlocutor speaking in a comic accent, wearing formal cloths, eating an apple and wheeling in a steamer trunk from which he hauls the toy theater. (Levin, as Jonathan Levin, designed the toy theater and props, Charlie Kanev and Sarah Nolan the puppets.)

Only after he’s changed into the impresario’s cheap checkered suit and after some additional theatrical legerdemain is he revealed as the hunger artist in black leotard and in the cage. No longer gregarious, he’s a white-faced, dark-eyed man hungry to prove—for his secret reasons—how resolutely he engages in public starvation.

Now not the affable figure he’s been in two guises, he’s the lean and physical—athletic, really—hunger artist. Except when he isn’t the carny attraction, since for the rest of the 90 or so minutes, he reverts by way of quick changes to the impresario and back again. (Peiyi Wong designed the tear-away clothes as well as the deliberately shopworn set.) There’s a sequence in which he hangs clothes on two coatracks, slips his arm into a couple of sleeves and carries on a three-way conversation.

Everything employed to create this depiction of a psychologically challenging man is well done. That includes Kate McGee’s lighting and M Florian Staab’s sound design, which at various points reprises—for the purpose of nailing the period—the hit song of 1893, Charles K. Harris’s “After the Ball.” (The sound design is based on director Gelb’s original design.)

On the stage, A Hunger Artist has an impact equal to its power on the page. This is some accomplishment. It’s almost as if Kafka himself willed it into being.

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Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie is a four-person revue that’s been making the venue rounds for about 10 years, and now, perhaps as a breather for industrious artistic director Charlotte Moore and equally industrious producing director Ciaran O’Reilly, it’s ambled amiably onto the Irish Repertory Company stage.

Devised by David M. Lutken with Nick Corley, who directs, the downhome revue features singer-musicians Megan Loomis, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein and Lutken speaking as Woody, born Woodrow, Guthrie. The legendary songwriter’s story is told with, of course, the expected folks songs—‘This Land is Your Land,” “Bound for Glory,” “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You,” et cetera—delivered in rousing arrangements.

Along the way, it becomes increasingly clear for those not already hipped to it that where songs reflecting the Great Depression are concerned, Guthrie was the major chronicler—something song historian Alan Lomax surely understood when he began recording Guthrie.

Also extremely evident is Guthrie’s tunesmithing formula. He was partial to landing on a phrase—“This train is bound for glory,” as an example—and then repeating it three times with a capping sentence. The suggestion is that he didn’t spend long hours coming up with something melodically new, but he undeniably had a knack for the habitually respected song hook.

Yes, Woody Sez is corny—a tenor, Corley sez, uses “the left tonsil”—but who sez corn can’t be fun? And the fun stops from time to time when the downs of Guthrie’s up-and-down life are recounted.

Also, it’s difficult not to think about the timelessness of the Guthrie songbook. Think about “This Land is Your Land” in the context of today’s severely politically divided United States. When the four Woody Sez singers lift their voices on it, patrons might unstoppably start wondering whether sometime soon, various blue-red factions will start demanding their segment of this land.

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