I am interrupting my regularly scheduled programming of a blog post a day. The holidays are here, and Denver and my nephews are calling, which is especially exciting because not only is there a new addition to the family in the form of a puppy, but there is also the promise from the beloved middle nephew to perform for me the monologue he did for his drama class and I am going to hold him to it. The real reason for introducing the hiatus now, however, is that my sabbatical is over and soon I will be teaching full-time again, so it seems like the right moment to move from a daily blog post schedule to one that is more intermittent.
I want to end the daily portion on the right note, however, which is why I keep putting off ending it at all. But I think I have come up with something that I can live with because it involves a solo performance that I would have missed if the ticket price hadn’t been as reasonable as it was.
On Saturday, October 14, 2017, I attended a solo performance entitled Kafka and Son, which was part of the Soho Playhouse’s Fringe Encore Series. Its sole performer, Alan Nashman, had traveled to NYC all the way from Canada to share his creation with us. Nashman created an hour-long performance based solely on the letters written by the author, Franz Kafka (yes, the Franz Kafka who wrote The Metamorphosis in which, and who can forget this, Gregor Samsa undergoes a one-of-a-kind transformation). The letters, almost excruciatingly venomous but because the prose is so taut also wondrously compelling to hear, document the repression Kafka experienced under his father’s authority. Nashman, using nothing more than his voice to distinguish between father and son, sometimes spoke as the increasingly distraught son and sometimes spoke as the tyrannical father punctuating his comments with a disparaging and withering laugh that came out as a cutting “heh, heh, heh, heh.” Nashman’s costume, whether Kafka the father or Kafka the son, consisted of a suit you would expect to see in the early part of the 20th century complete with jacket AND vest, trousers, shirt, tie and shoes. While speaking, Nashman does several things. He sometimes takes items of his clothing off and then puts them back on. He sometimes weaves his way through various props made out of rusted wire, including a cot-size bed and a square that sometimes serves as desk, sometimes serves as platform on which to stand, and sometimes serves as cage. Since Nashman walks around in bare feet for a good deal of the performance, and since he also wrestles with the rusted pieces, this not infrequently causes great worry on the part of the audience (at least it did so for me), which heightens the tension. The set also includes lots and lots of feathers, sometimes black and sometimes white, suggesting both the implement with which Kafka writes his letters (Nashman would pick up a white feather now and again and scribble in the air) as well as the paper upon which he writes. The feathers also serve more symbolic purposes such as when, as the son, he frantically gathers the black ones into his hands and offers them outward to suggest the innumerable complaints he has against father. During another moment, Nashman stuffs the feathers into his mouth to illustrate a forced concession to the father’s incessant urging that he eat like a man. But most memorably, at the end, Nashman leaps up onto the wire box and he pulls his shirt up over his shoulders creating vast wings, enhanced by the shadow of his silhouette that appears on the wall behind him. Nashman then flaps the arms that are constrained by the shirt up and down uncontrollably. Since feathers are strewn about everywhere, it is clear he is embodying the actions of a trapped bird desperately trying to escape but unable to do so.
It is an unforgettable image with which to end, and why it worked so powerfully is that I had no idea that that was where the performance was going to take me. I had to take a leap of faith when I walked into the theater, but it was a leap I might not have taken if the ticket hadn’t been so reasonably priced. Even though I teach literature, I don’t know that I would have felt compelled to see a performance about Franz Kafka and if that’s how I feel, imagine how many others would take a pass on such a performance.
It is something that Nashman was well aware of as well, though it did not stop him from creating the piece. I know this because of the exchange that occurred between performer and audience at the end of the show. It was then that Nashman thanked his audience for attending his show, and with a wry smile, reminded us that there were two more shows from the Fringe Encore Series appearing later that day and that we should go to them because we could see three shows for “1/20th of the price of a Springsteen on Broadway ticket”. To which statement his audience responded with appreciative laughter and even louder applause.
Though the audience was small, we were all in agreement, that it would be better to see 60 very different solo performances than just one, no matter how good that one performance might be. Because each one of the sixty, even if not perfect, might just make us feel or see or understand something that we had no idea we needed to feel or see or understand. I know that when I walked out of Kafka and Son, I wanted to go to a bookstore immediately to get my hands on anything written by Franz Kafka so I could appreciate and savor his prose. No amount of money can substitute for that experience, and I feel richer for living in a world that sometimes, still, miraculously, allows both performer and audience to take risks of the imagination together.
And, perhaps most important, the perverse part of me loves that I am marking the holidays with a discussion of the decidedly unsentimental Franz Kafka!