Baryshnikov Arts Center (see Off Broadway). By Colin Teevan. Dir. Walter Meierjohann. With Kathryn Hunter. 55mins. No intermission.
To say that humans are descended from apes is, taking the phrase literally, to imply that we have fallen from a higher state. In gaining speech, bigger brains and a will to shape the world, we’ve lost our purer, natural selves. This essentially Romantic notion gets a harsh, modernist spin in Franz Kafka’s 1917 story “A Report to an Academy,” in which the simian Red Peter—who has learned to speak and imitate the ways of Homo sapiens—recounts his transformation to a gathering of scientists. The remarkable English actor Kathryn Hunter takes on this bizarre role in Kafka’s Monkey, a blackly humorous monologue adapted by Colin Teevan.
Hunter’s Red Peter makes a subdued but striking entrance: He waddles into the room with a little suitcase, dressed in fancy coat and tails, a bowler crammed over untamable fuzz. In her physical performance (created with movement expert Ilan Reichel), Hunter does phenomenal work: legs bowed, spine bent, wrists flexed at a painful angle, she devolves spectacularly. And when the petite, gravel-voiced performer gets around to really aerobic activities, her double-jointed contortions are equally impressive.
The text itself, which tracks Red Peter’s capture in Africa, his journey to Europe in a ship, his awakening to language and eventual employment in a vaudeville house, is one extended, bitter critique of Western civilization and its illusion of freedom. Such grotesque satire would grow dull if it weren’t for this arresting actor (who toys amusingly with the audience), efficiently directed by Walter Meierjohann. Stranded in the downward tumble from ape to human, Red Peter is a tragic figure of assimilation, but also an undeniably unique individual.—David Cote
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