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Theatre in Review: A Hunger Artist (The Tank/Flint & Tinder)

Jon Levin. Photo: Kelly Stuart

The Tank's Flint & Tinder series has given us all sorts of good things -- it has been a hive of Drama Desk Award-nominated work -- but, in my experience, it has never presented anything as hilarious and macabre as A Hunger Artist. I guess that's what happens when you base your show on the work of Franz Kafka, but playwright Josh Luxenberg, director Joshua William Gelb, and performer Jon Levin -- partners in something called Sinking Ship Productions -- bring an unflagging sense of theatrical invention that, even if you well remember the original story, provides a nonstop sense of surprise.

So delightful and original is this trio's approach that I don't want to spoil it for you; safe to say, however, that A Hunger Artist begins as a riotous vaudeville and darkens by degrees as the title character descends into melancholy and squalor. Levin first appears as the narrator, outfitted in a costume by Peiyi Wong that makes him look like a true early twentieth-century impresario, complete with top hat and opera coat. The costume also gives him a bulbous shape not usually seen outside of cartoons; white makeup endows him with the demeanor of a ghoul, or maybe a body-snatcher. He speaks in a guttural accent that turns the slightest remark into an expression of weltschmerz; with every gesture, every look, he seems to be saying, What can you do?

The kind of performer who can get a big laugh by warning the audience, "Don't laugh," Levin, dressed to the bizarre nines, fusses about amusingly, setting the scene while complaining about his lack of pay, and taking a funny swipe at Streepshow!, the attraction with which it is currently sharing the Connelly stage. Quizzing individual audience members about how much they paid for their tickets, he is depressed at the number of comps, and does some mental calculations before announcing, dispiritedly, "Today, I made negative four hundred and fifty dollars!"

He then launches into Kafka's narrative about a man who starved for a living, adding, "In the past few decades, interest in public starvation has declined dramatically. It used to be that a hunger artist in top form would attract enormous crowds, everywhere he went. But we live in a different world now." He describes the artist's routine, sitting in a cage for forty days, taking no nourishment, and, on the final day, emerging from captivity in front of an audience, attended by a physician and guided by couple of female volunteers. The narrator presents this action first in a tiny toy theatre populated by miniscule puppets, an amusing exercise in futility that is replaced by another version of the same scene, this time using random audience members picked to play the impresario, an attending physician, and the ladies. (At the performance I attended, the chosen impresario, using a megaphone, delivered his lines in ear-splitting stentorian fashion, an approach that gave Levin plenty of material to play with.) Then the narrator disappears from the stage altogether, leaving the others to struggle through their assigned scene, following instructions delivered via the sound system.

Up to this point, A Hunger Artist is a delightful free-form comic exercise of the sort that one associates with Bill Irwin and David Shiner. Then the volunteers are dispersed and Levin returns, now wearing a turn-of-the-century bathing costume that shows off his slim build, as the hunger artist himself. Thus begins the sorry tale of how audiences desert him, even as he pushes his art to impossible, grisly extremes. There is still plenty of comic invention; in a brilliant bit of staging, Levin, standing in front of a coat rack, slips each arm into a different coat and, simply by changing his position, becomes both parties in a negotiation between the hunger artist's impresario and the circus owner who buys out his contract. Confined to the side show, a look of hopelessness seizes control of his face as the crowds pass by on their way to more enticing attractions; at night, he cowers in his cage, surrounded by hostile animal noises. (These effects, and many more, including the sounds of train engines, a ticking clock, and various musical selections, are provided by the excellent sound designer, M. Florian Staab.) Driven to succeed, he undergoes lengthier and lengthier fasts, a strategy that becomes more poignant for the lack of interest it draws. And then one day, the circus manager, who has lost track of the hunger artist, stops by his cage to find...

If you know Kafka's story, you know what to expect. Even so, the tableau on the Connelly stage is one of the eerier offerings to be found on a New York stage right now. (At one point, through a feat of legerdemain I can't quite explain, Levin produces a horribly shriveled arm that fits neatly between the bars of his cage.) In its treatment of Kafka's story, the production team creates one startling image after another, while retaining the story's teasing resonance: Is this a parable of the artist's destructive relationship to the audience? A study of man's (and, perhaps, capitalism's) inherent exploitation? An exercise in flesh-creeping for its own sake? Any and all could be true; in any case, this is one production that is hard to shake off.

Levin is a remarkably dexterous performer, armed with a deadpan approach that can land a laugh one minute while, a second later, sending a chill through the room. He falls to the floor, seemingly smashing his nose against the deck. He also pulls off a lightning-fast costume change, suggesting that he has a top-flight backstage crew working with him. Most crucially, before A Hunger Artist is over, you'll swear that you've seen him shrink before your eyes; on the evidence of this performance, he is a major talent. Luxenberg and Gelb also make major contributions, never losing control of the audience, even as the script dramatically switches gears. Wong's set is a clever concept, turning what appears to be a bare stage into the tawdriest of circuses. Kate McGee's lighting includes chases, a moody night wash on the caged hunger artist, and a string of bulbs, placed under the raised stage, that distract from a major scene change. The tiny, tiny puppets are by Charlie Kanev and Sarah Nolan, with a toy theatre and even tinier props supplied by Levin.

Kafka's story is eerily compelling on its own, but it isn't a slam dunk for a stage adaptation, given its largely passive lead character and his doomed trajectory. Fortunately, Levin, Luxenberg, and Gelb have plenty of stage magic at their command, seducing us with comedy before dragging us willingly into the hunger artist's seedy, isolated existence. Later on, you may want to discuss what it is all about; watching it, you'll be too spellbound to ask questions. -- David Barbour

(8 June 2017)

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