nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
April 24, 2009
I've always considered Franz Kafka to be much more than the dark, misunderstood outsider he is often seen as. To me he was quite funny—sure, in a dark and twisted manner, but funny nonetheless. His humor was so absurd and, at times, harsh that it can be mistaken for anguish but I believe that to be deliberate. Thankfully, Drama of Works sees Kafka in a similar light, portraying him as both anguished and introspective but also quite real and often funny.
Puppet Kafka is not a staging of one of Kafka's stories. It is a look at the life of an author who, even though much of his work was left unfinished, influenced generations of authors to come. The plot is loosely based on his short novel The Metamorphosis and there are elements of The Trial as well. Playwright B. Walker Sampson uses the common Kafka theme of familial struggles to explore Kafka's relationship with his real family. We meet his apprehensive mom, his overbearing dad, and his kind sister. His good friend and editor Max Brod is also present and we see a lighter side of their friendship and how Max supports his friend. Sampson also looks at Kafka's relationship with Felice, a woman he loved dearly for many years.
Sampson combines biographical elements with Kafka's fiction to create a single piece that is a very striking and often charming slice of Kafka's life. It doesn't necessary dig very deep but it has an arc that is consuming and theatrical so his life becomes more accessible than in most biographies one can read. Sampson, for example, uses Gregor Samsa and K. to deliver Kafka's inner thoughts, and an interrogator, represented by empty suit, to extract more information about Kafka from his family members. Sampson also brings Kafka's humor and absurd paranoia into the mix, making many segments quite funny. The dialogue is sharp as can be and Sampson has clearly done his homework.
Many segments are funny or captivating due to Drama of Works' masterful found object puppet design. Director-designer Gretchen Van Lente creates a fantastical world of puppet theater. Her design for the bug is made from two wicker baskets, peacock feathers, pipe brushes, and cloth. The puppeteer animates the bug with a single hand making it crawl all about the stage. The empty suit is amazing! There is a statue in Prague of Kafka riding an empty suit (based on a character in an early short story) and Van Lante recreates this suit with fabulous results. She also has single-jointed desk lamps hopping around the stage, the letter "K" in various sizes, and a maid character made from a mop and broom with a face carved out of a sponge. Brilliant!
The puppeteers are equally amazing. Their work propels the show into a surreal series of unforgettable images. Jason Howard and John Ardolino deftly handle the marionettes and several other puppets. Adam Sullivan serves up some great work with the empty suit. Scott Weber works the bug with precision while Deborah Beshaw and Tatiana Pavela manage their human characters with equal skill as their puppets. I really enjoyed the blurred line between puppet and puppeteer they create.
Drama of Works has created an honest look at an author who can be as misunderstood as his characters and that works to create an evening of some of the best puppet theater you can get in New York City. The skill and inventiveness on display will open Kafka up to many who may find his work too depressing to enjoy and that's a great accomplishment in and of itself.