The Hunger Artist @ the New Ohio Theater
I’m always starving. First of all, I’m kind of a lush: always spending my hard-earned artist salary on good wine and some dope new trendy neighborhood Ramen or whatever. But also as a contemporary theater maker, I’m famished. Famished for people to see my work, to feed me thoughtful reactions and challenging conversations. I’m not looking for everyone to love my work, I just want it to stimulate some kind of emotional response, or provoke some thought. It seems that as much as I work, as much as people see me and what I do, I’m never satiated. So walking into an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Hunger Artist, I’m already ready to wallow in my passionate opinions about the artist’s isolation from society, just like a pig in mud. The story is about, you guessed it, an artist who hungers, whose art it is to starve himself in a metal cage. First, he’s paraded around and managed by an Impresario as a main attraction, and then later joins a circus as a side act, only to be ignored and forgotten.
After seeing Sinking Ship‘s take on this story, I can’t deny there was so much more beyond my preconceived notions. They performed The Hunger Artist at the New Ohio Theatre on Wednesday, September 28. I discovered colorful sides to this coin, each facet really beautifully imagined and brought to life by its creators. I laughed and reveled at nostalgic moments that felt like an inside joke between the audience and the performer; I unpacked an exciting duality within Kafka’s play between an artist and his society; and ultimately I mourned the death of a performer who believes in himself so much that, while being completely ignored, *spoiler alert* starves to his actual death. To explore these discoveries further, I was lucky enough to catch creators Josh Luxenberg and Jonathan Isadore Levin (also the performer in this one man show) for a cup of tea and an interview.
One of the first things Josh, Jon, and I touched on was the theatrical nature and humor in the piece, a surprise to me after finding the original text pretty dark. At the very top of the performance, we experience a wonderfully funny scene, full of panache and a certain nostalgia. The Impresario (Jon) enters the space almost clowning, his physical humor shining through. The creative team truly captured Kafka’s humor, poking fun at how serious this over-the-top Impresario feels about the pretty, outlandish artform of hungering. He hilariously portrays a sort of slimy, sort of endearing artist manager who just arrived by bus, schlepping his trunk from city to city, telling the tale of his Hunger Artist. He takes major time to set the scene, his enormous fat-suit belly getting in the way of arranging a series of nostalgic and vintage props. Everything must be just right, yet his clumsiness causes objects to fall into the audience, breaking the fourth wall in a hilarious, unexpected way.
“I think Kafka had a big sense of humor about his work… I think to him, all this build up in the beginning, the whole first 90 percent of the story, is hysterical. He was just like [in a big bravado voice] ‘and there was a giant marching band, and ladies, and flowers,’ and these long sentences that keep going on and on and on. To him, there’s a certain winky-ness to it; there’s a certain knowledge of it’s over-the-top-ness.” -Jon
What is revealed after many attempts to set the stage, (and also after he takes a break to consume a hot dog and a glass of wine), is a mysterious briefcase that transforms into a beautiful, hand-cranked toy theater. The Impresario unwinds a vivid tale of the Hunger Artist’s grand performance, reenacting the marching bands, the ladies, the flowers. The charm of this little set struck me. I haven’t had the privilege of seeing much puppetry and it really engaged me, even though the art form is completely foreign to me. Jon’s performance with the use of this beautifully chosen prop took my mind to an old world, and made me laugh while I was in on it. This was really delightful. And this was one of the goals of the creators: to bring the audience back to an old style of theatrical storytelling, to transport us, to open our imaginations, to allow us to appreciate what some would call too dated. This goal tremendously serves Kafka’s ideas, as he points out throughout his short story that there once was a time when the Hunger Artist was appreciated and revered far and wide, and now his art is no longer entertaining.
“There is a certain nostalgia for an era when people went to the theater to experience narrative. There wasn’t Netflix, this wasn’t a thing you do by yourself. You go into a space and you invest in an imaginative thing that takes a little effort to imagine. It’s not something that’s on a screen, that’s fully realized, where there are no gaps that you have to fill in. Part of what I’m particularly interested in is playing between that space. We are showing you this, but we are not showing you that, and that’s creating this kind of transformance–a moment where the space transforms. We set up one thing, then we yank the rug out, and then [do] something else and you can only do that when you’re creating a theatrical space, a space with ambiguity, a space that allows you to make that happen.” –Jon
And in that first part of the performance, this play was really fun to experience. I saw the way the team set up all these imaginative transformations, and I laughed constantly. Especially at the fact that here, these masses that came to see the Hunger Artist, threw flowers for him, yet really didn’t understand his art at all. No one did. To be honest, I don’t. And that’s part of the point that Kafka made and Sinking Ship is exploring further. It’s fun to laugh and become a part of this big, sweeping, theatrical experience, the root of which is this totally incomprehensible artform of starving. And therein lies the paradox that ultimately made this piece so engaging to me: we are both reveling in and feeling nostalgia for a time and place where art is honored, engaged in, and appreciated, while simultaneously poking fun at art, and inconspicuously demonstrating that there actually really never was a time when the artist was truly understood. He was always isolated.
“I think we get away with the reverence because we are also making fun of ourselves. I think that there’s the heart-breaking read of this story, where we all identify as artists, and we feel how hard it is to be an artist and nobody understands it, and blah blah blah. But there’s another read to this where this is a satire and the butt of the joke is the Hunger Artist. He’s not doing anything. Literally. He’s just not eating. It’s the most extreme parody of the starving artist you could think of. And you can read it either way. And so it’s very important that it’s not all reverence and nostalgia. I think that it has an inherent skepticism to the thing that it’s telling you that you should like it because everybody else liked it. And the thing is, humor and laughter is such a useful tool in theater because it seduces you, and the minute you laugh, you’re susceptible to anything. And so we get you laughing, and then you’re ready to receive the rest of it.” -Josh
The laughter did subside later on for me, however. Without giving anything away–because trust me, there are so many great surprises to give away–we find that Jon has become the Hunger Artist himself. The story continues, and as interest in the art of hungering wanes, the artist joins the circus: left in the animal tent where circus goers walk by on the way to the more important menagerie. Here I found that feeling I had in my heart while reading the original text. I felt sadness and a deep empathy for an artist ignored, an artist isolated. What made me even more empathetic is that this character believes in himself and his art so much that he believes he can starve forever. This belief kills him. It made me ask myself this question: are artists meant to suffer? The artist in this story is not a part of the society. He chooses to stay in a cage, away from everyone. And yet, he depends on and requires society’s approval for his livelihood, and when society stops caring, he dies. What is this relationship between the performer and his audience?
“We are not providing an answer to it because I think it’s unanswerable. I think it is a depiction of that struggle, among a depiction of many other things. That’s inherent in [the story], and it must be Kafka’s own ambivalence about that. I mean, you know, he wanted everything he wrote to be burnt.” -Josh
“Yeah, there this mixture of pride, and almost self-loathing, a self-destructiveness that you see in his writing and the way he behaved towards his writing, certainly. He wanted everything to be destroyed, everything burned. I don’t know if it wasn’t good enough to him, or what…” -Jon
“If the Hunger Artist is in the circus and nobody sees him, is he still an artist? That’s kind of the question, right? One of the things I thought was so sly in Kafka’s story is that they’ve set up how much he wants to fast for longer than forty days… he wants to fast indefinitely. He thinks he can go on forever and they won’t let him. Society, and his manager are holding him back. And when he finally does exceed forty days in the circus, not only does nobody notice, but in story the circus workers are supposed to change the calendar [marking his starved days], and they just stop, they just forgot about it at some point. So he doesn’t know how long he’s hungered. He will achieve his goal and not only does nobody else know, but he doesn’t even know for sure what he’s achieved.” – Josh
“‘Not even the Hunger Artist himself knew how long he had fasted’” – Jon, quoting Kafka
“Yeah, so I think there’s that sense that he’s done the thing, but there’s no record of it for himself, and that tension is the tragedy.” – Josh
“Forgive me,” says the Hunger Artist when asked if he’s ever going to stop starving right before he dies, “I have to fast, I can’t help it… I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.” Sad. And darkly funny.
The show was full of heart and imagination. It left me mentally and emotionally satiated, although, ironically hungry. And I have to add that the design elements really helped fulfill this great experience. The story was completely uplifted by wonderful lighting, costume and set design, and these designs really did transform, aiding harmoniously within the arch of the story. Set pieces that acted as one thing, would unfold and become another; and lights that started warm in an old-timey gold glow slowly shifted to cooler temperatures and colors, matching with the gradual downfall of the character. The whole show is riddled with very fun surprises, unfolding with ingenuity: these transformations not only keeping me on my toes with excitement, but really helping me access the deeper heart of the work. I can’t give them away, you’ll just have to see for yourself.
Sinking Ship’s A Hunger Artist will appear again on November 5th, as part of the United Solo Artist Festival at Theater Row.
Adapted by Jonathan Isadore Levin, Joshua William Gelb, and Josh Luxenberg
Performed by Jonathan Isadore Levin
Directed by Joshua William Gelb
Script by Josh Luxenberg
Lighting Design by Michael McGee
Set and Costume Design by Peiyi Wong
Article written by Elizabeth McGuire.