What: Kafka the Musical
Where: Little Fernwood Hall, 1923 Fernwood Rd.
When: To Dec. 15
Rating: 4 (out of five)
Kafka the Musical sounds like it'd be about as fun as, oh ... say Hermann Hesse the standup comic.
Or Henry Kissinger the cruise ship social director.
You see, Franz Kafka has a reputation as one serious hombre.
He's best known for The Metamorphosis, the tale of a guy who is transformed into a cockroach-like insect. In another Kafka tale, In the Penal Colony, the central figure is an execution/torture machine.
And in most of his photos, Kafka looks pretty darned glum.
Surprisingly, Kafka the Musical is a good deal of fun, despite some meandering toward its flawed ending. This is bold, intelligent theatre: thought-provoking and, at times, quite moving.
The musical - more accurately a play with music - is by British composer/dramatist Murray Gold. Theatre Inconnu is giving Kafka the Musical its stage première (the piece was broadcast by BBC Radio last year). The Victoria troupe, directed by Clayton Jevne, does an impressive job with a challenging and enjoyably eccentric piece.
The play's premise is that Franz Kafka, one of modern literature's most influential and enigmatic writers, has been enlisted by a producer to star in a musical about his life. Quite soon, the proceedings recall the opening lines of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody: "Is this the real life ... or is this just fantasy?"
Encouraged by his parents, Kafka dutifully visits the office of the producer, Herr Grossman, to suss out the proposition. Grossman's receptionist Melina, played with terrific brio by Melissa Blank, not only encourages Kafka, she proposes a tryst. Soon, she's straddling ol' Kafka in lusty buckaroo-style.
What makes this production is Premtim Plakolli, who does a superb job of playing Kafka. He makes the character a stuttering, self-doubting neurotic. On Thursday night, Plakolli (seeming a cross between Stanley Tucci and Alan Arkin) emphasized physical movement and facial expression in a heightened manner that worked awfully well. It was amusing, yet there was also Buster Keaton-style sadness in his portrayal.
The play is set in Weimar Republic-era Germany, with inflation zooming and citizens feeling the oppression that would later transmogrify into Adolf Hitler's terrifying reign. This Germany, conjured up by an appropriately sparse set and period music, exudes an ominous atmosphere that jibes with Kafka's bleak persona.
What's particularly clever about Kafka the Musical is its continual shifting in and out of a dream-like state. Sometimes we are drawn into the action, for instance, when Kafka interacts with his true love, Dora (Jess Shead). Then Gold brusquely distances us, revealing the sequence was merely a scene from the Kafka "musical." This Brechtian device is used repeatedly. Thematically, Gold seems to question the authenticity of the way any of us view the world.
Often, Kafka's entire experience seems a fantasy, with even strangers seeming to know everything about him - even the content of his dreams. The character of Grossman is especially enigmatic. He appears only as a hooded figure being tortured with needles, a deliberate echo of The Penal Colony (other Kafka writings, such as The Hunger Artist, are referenced as well).
Musical numbers surface only toward the end of the piece. Some singing was less than superb; however, it seemed to matter little as it added a comic - or at least homespun - effect. Gold's music is simple and sweet, providing a balm to all the existential angst.
Donna Williams, seen in a window above the stage, provides lovely violin accompaniment to a recorded soundtrack.
The play loses its way somewhat in the last half-hour. A spoken epilogue wraps things up in a self-conscious way that tells rather than shows. Overall, Theatre Inconnu has done itself proud with an interesting and curiously exhilarating show.
© Copyright 2013