There was a time when people made a living by starving themselves in front of a paying audience — an art form that lasted for centuries, but one that was on the wane when Franz Kafka wrote one of his last short stories, A Hunger Artist, in 1922.
“No one is really interested in this sort of thing anymore,” says the impresario, dressed in a battered top hat and bulging opera coat at the start of the Sinking Ship company’s stage adaptation of “A Hunger Artist,” which is on stage at the Connelly Theater through January 18. Of course, he is talking about the art and business of “hungering,” but he could just as easily be referring to the art of theater as a whole. Sinking Ship hopes to help turn that around; it has transformed Kafka’s disturbing story into a showcase for all manner of visually stunning, old-fashioned theatrics.
Jonathan Levin, who portrays the impresario, hauls out a big steamer trunk, the kind used by traveling theater troupes. From it, he extracts a small toy theater, then manipulates and ventriloquizes tiny puppets to explain the process – amounting to a ritual – in which the hunger artist practiced his craft. A tiny hunger artist, tiny impresario, tiny “watchers” (to make sure he doesn’t sneak in food),an attending physician, two tiny puppet ladies to escort him after 40 days of fasting to his first meal. Acknowledging that the puppets are too small for the audience to see, he then enlists volunteers from the audience to play the parts the puppets just played, posing them, and giving them lines to recite.
While the audience members are completing their roles, Levin suddenly appears the hunger artist, a far slimmer figure than the impresario. It is the first example of Levin’s quick change artistry. Later he portrays the hunger artist, and simultaneously both the impresario who’s selling his contract and the circus manager who’s buying it. He does this through the use of a coat rack and a coat – standard clown practice, but always delightful. Although it sometimes seems hard to believe, Levin is the sole member of the cast.
After the sale, “A Hunger Artist” turns terribly dark, faithful to Kafka’s story of a man starving himself to death without anybody noticing, much less caring. Perhaps it’s too faithful, because the creative team – playwright Josh Luxenberg and director Joshua William Gelb and the designers – seems content to focus on creating the bleak, creepy atmosphere without offering a clear point of view as to what Kafka was trying to say. Was Kafka satirizing artist pretensions by having the hunger artist say “I have to hunger, I can’t do anything else”? Was it a serious inward look by a man who wrote in obscurity (his fame only posthumous) and who knew he was dying of tuberculosis? (What do you do if what you’ve done your whole life is not something that anybody finds interesting?) Was it a parable for an unappreciated artist in a coarse era, a misunderstood purist in an unholy age?
These questions nag. But one thing is clear. This is an encore production of a show that debuted at the Connelly in 2017. So, some people are interested in this sort of thing.