Franz Kafka is certainly one of the more haunting figures of 20th-century literature; the dark, brooding genius, tucked away in a hermetic existence, and yet one who produced some of the most vibrant, striking, and evocative texts of the epoch. And although often too easily dismissed as simplistic nihilism, Kafka’s ability to render the insurmountable condition of individual existence in a cold, forboding world is paradoxically eloquent and incredibly beautiful.
So it’s no surprise that the always-stunning Drama of Works does a truly remarkable job of performing Kafka’s life and works in their new piece Puppet Kafka at HERE. DoW also works against the odds, proving that performing object and puppet theatre is still vital to contemporary performance, able to achieve and realize aesthetics and themes otherwise impossible with mere human performers. The action takes place in a room where time and space collapse; the action of Kafka’s life and works all occur in the same bedroom, proving that the writer’s experiences are parallel, if not inextricable, from his works.
The most prevalent theme in the piece revolves around scale, obviously important to puppet theatre, but here converted into poignant allegory. The small, Czech marionette of Kafka is dwarfed not only by his operator, but his surroundings, such as doors, a desk, typewriter, and valises. His overarching themes of insignificance and confusion are reflected in the stature of the performers (objects) themselves. (The only full size performers are Kafka’s—and Mr. K’s—family, as well as the government interrogator in scenes from The Trial, the interrogator represented by a man’s suit, full-size, only missing the actual body.) When portraying Kafka’s troublesome relationship with his father, using letters sent between them, Franz is represented by a wooden “K,” which grows smaller and smaller as his father belittles him more and more—textually, that is.
In addition to the larger themes and issues, the objects themselves are stunning—in the form of the marionettes of Kafka and his friend and champion Max Brod, the Interrogator, and, most notably, Gregor (in bug form) as a hand puppet for scenes from The Metamorphosis.
The delight in this performance almost makes one forget the piece’s one important oversight: while DoW indeed finds the beauty and humor in Kafka’s work, they do away altogether with their chief characteristic, that is, the sinister darkness and overwhelming sense of claustrophobia. Puppet Kafka is mostly, well, charming and funny, but these moments shouldn’t be staged with an outright situational comedic sensibility. Humor from Kafka comes from a place of hopelessness; we laugh because it’s too horrid to do anything else, and that is where his genius comes from. Drama of Works, continuing its wonderful mission to prove puppet theatre’s viability and legitimacy, would do well to move away from the Franz and Max show and bring a larger concept of the subject to the design’s fore.
But this criticism comes only from support and admiration for the group, and Puppet Kafka adds another beautiful piece to the company’s repertory.