By: Isa Goldberg
A brilliant, bizarre and inventive piece of theater, A Hunger Artist, is brought to us by Sinking Ship Productions, a company which is rightfully stirring up some dust in theater circles. Produced by The Tank, at The Connelly Theater in the East Village, and only through the month, it is truly a satisfying piece of theater, nurtured solely by the imaginations of Sinking Ship’s collaborators, Josh Luxenberg, playwright, and Jon Levin, the show’s solo performer, and aided by Josh William Gelb, director and co-creator. Utilizing the most rudimentary instruments, the production is true to the concept of a poor theater, in which the actors co-create the experience with the spectators.
As the play opens, a seemingly corpulent man with an apple in his mouth, drags an oversized trunk onto the bare stage. Before opening his bag of tricks, he throws the remaining apple into the wings. The evocation of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis falls into place. This piece is based on his story, the titular Hunger Artist, which he wrote while he was dying of tuberculosis, and unable to swallow food. Kafka himself died of starvation.
What emerges through the show’s 75 minutes, without intermission, is a fluid display of theatrical styles from a depraved circus act, to a vaudevillian, to a tragic hero. Levin’s transformations are seamless, as he evokes images of Charlie Chaplin and the commedia dell’arte. Not to mention that he portrays a multitude of characters, all of whom are in one sense or another, his oppressors. These include a group of butchers, and a team of doctors, who are portrayed by audience members whom he chooses to come on the stage with him. But he portrays the major characters – and sometimes simultaneously. On occasion, he engages with off stage voice-over recordings, not all of which are his own voice. In other scenes, he creates the characters through puppetry (designed by Sarah Nolen). And the puppets are diverse, from miniscule to life size.
In one scene, his manager sells the show to a big top circus, as Levin wrapping himself in the coats hanging from two coat racks, puts his arm through a sleeve in each one. We see the manager and the circus barker shaking hands over the deal, and literally over his body. As it turns out, Levin is an emaciated man with a 26” waist, and an amazing musculature. As a performance artist, he is enchanting, fluid, and exceptionally skillful. The way he morphs from one character to another, and from one emotional state to another, is remarkable. In addition, he portrays The Impresario who guides us through a multitude of theatrical spaces, all within the small intimate stage at The Connelly.
His work is enhanced by music from an old Victrola, that ranges from German music hall songs to lullabies. M Florian Staab’s sound effects are equally contagious elements, bringing us the roaring of the crowd, the cataclysmic rain storms that accompany his 40-day fast, and some eerie other-worldly dissonances, all of which color the emotional space. The deeply disturbed alienation, and physical isolation of a man who spends most of his time in a cage, bears an important resemblance to the bug in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Like him, the Hunger Artist may be interpreted as the victim of a capitalist system, and in a certain sense the symbol of all poor, needy, and hungry people, “yearning to breathe free.”
But what sickens him and the audience as well, is the contempt of his fans, the people who come to ogle and make fun of him. One man, seeing the Hunger Artist at the circus, remembers seeing the act when he was a kid, and points him out to his son. “Of course, he’s probably a fraud. A faker. A liar. A cheat…a charlatan…” The insults continue ad nauseam, until his loss of popularity, and his death, finally allow the circus to replace him with a panther. The stagecraft which creates this looming ferocious figure is wildly imaginative. Simply, it’s a plastic toy animal set on the rotating turntable of the Victrola, as we watch its shadow pummeling the walls.
Still, it’s Jonathan Levin’s tour de force performance, which is magical!
The Connelly Theatre
220 East Fourth Street NYC
For Tickets Click Here
Photos: Kelly Stuart