Theater review by Helen Shaw
[Note: This is a review of the 2017 production of The Hunger Artist. The show returns to the Connelly Theater in January, 2020, for an encore run.]
In Franz Kafka’s jet-black 1922 fable “A Hunger Artist,” one of the last stories he wrote, the title character is both a sort of holy man and physical freak, a fame-hungry ascetic who can starve himself for 40 days straight. Sitting in a cage, this living skeleton hypnotizes paying audiences with his extreme self-denial; but when abnegation falls out of favor, he withers away for good. As a metaphor for life in the theater this is almost too perfect, and it’s hard to come away from the story unscarred. But at the Connelly Theater, where the physical-theater company Sinking Ship is presenting a surprisingly lovable version of it, any scarring is light.
Josh Luxenberg’s sweetly drawn bouffon adaptation of Kafka’s parable is full of jokes and sudden sympathy. It’s a one-man show, but there’s a communal feeling to it; the athletic Jonathan Levin plays the starving artist and a plump impresario and the artist’s eventual circus master with just a little quick-change magic. And there are helping hands, too, first through audience participation and then from a pair of overcoats, which Levin’s deft puppetry turns into cloth giants. Director Joshua William Gelb and the company use “poor theater” conventions of making much with little—props emerge from battered suitcases, a big set reveal involves four strings of Christmas lights—and the result is homemade, tatty and warm. The artist starves, but we leave sated: that old story, told again.
Connelly Theater (Off-Off Broadway). By Josh Luxenberg. Directed by Joshua William Gelb. With Jonathan Levin. Running time: 1hr 15mins. No intermission.
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