Theater Review: Trapped Somewhere Between Ape and Man in Kafka's Monkey | Arts

Theater Review: Trapped Somewhere Between Ape and Man in Kafka's Monkey


Common Ground Theatre, Durham
Through April 9,

History has shown that when captives address their captors, the experience can transform each party. It can even transform the cultures and times in which they live, as in the cases of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Albert Camus’s clandestine “Letters to a German Friend,” which he wrote in occupied France during World War II.

But the words of the forcibly assimilated—from Southern slave narratives to the testimony of the Cherokee and Lakota—are sober reminders that transformation can also be ambiguous, corrosive, or fatal, a reality reflected in the darker words of Shakespeare and Byron.

Kafka’s Monkey, Colin Teevan’s stage adaptation of Franz Kafka’s 1917 short story “A Report to an Academy,” follows this path. Its fantastical narrator, a famous performer on the European variety stage named Red Peter (Dale Wolf), has been invited to address a learned body about what his life was like before he transformed himself, under extreme duress, from an ape captured by a sailing party on Africa’s Gold Coast into a human being.

Director Dana Marks’s staging at Common Ground Theatre is as unconventional as Kafka’s narrative. We first encounter Red Peter as he dons an immaculate tuxedo and top hat in an upstairs dressing room. He then leads us on a walking deconstruction of the rest of the space, through a maze of backstage rooms, before ushering us across the stage to our seats in the audience.

By that time, our host has physicalized the most harrowing aspects of his capture and imprisonment on the ship, using the theater’s utilitarian offstage architecture. As Peter describes a cage that was too short for standing and too narrow for sitting, Wolf wedges his head and torso between the rungs of a wooden ladder by way of illustration.

The tortures of that cell lead Peter to study and mimic his captors, first in small matters, and then in large ones—not out of admiration, he stresses, but as a mere expedient. It’s the only way he could influence the conditions of his captivity. His success in this endeavor has led to his present popularity and wealth.

Were Kafka’s Monkey a tale by Dumas or Poe, this would be the moment when our protagonist takes a calculated, gruesome, and well-deserved revenge on his enemies. But for all his nausea and ambivalence regarding the human race, Peter has assimilated too deeply to separate himself from his jailers.

At first, Marks and Wolf seem to resist the darkness of Kafka’s text to a discomfiting degree. Though Wolf makes Peter’s frustration and alienation increasingly evident, the character could be infinitely angrier than he ever appears in this production. But he—and we—are apparently too civilized for that.

No one in the audience took Peter up on a midshow offer that escalated into a demand. It would have confirmed and crossed a social and biological divide. We love the natural world and see ourselves as a part of it, but only up to a point. The ending we’re left with is unsettling, unsatisfying—in a word, Kafkaesque—and entirely appropriate for a tale in which a character beckons us across a divide we’re unprepared to traverse. 

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