Kafka's Monkey

On this weekend at Artesian is Golden Apple Theatre’s production of Kafka’s Monkey – adapted by Colin Teevan from Franz Kafka’s A Report To An Academy. This is the Canadian premiere of the play, following a successful run in New York this past spring, and its world premiere at the Young Vic in London in 2009 – and it’s well worth checking out.

A chimpanzee is shot, captured, and brought to Weimar-era Germany by ship. Over time, he realizes, in order to survive, he has to depart from his ape persona, and somehow become human. After a rough introduction to alcohol, he very quickly develops the human characteristic of speech and proceeds to enchant and amaze European audiences under his new vaudevillian persona – Red Peter (so named for the red mark on his cheek from when he was shot).

And he’s a hit! He dances, he sings, and he gamely climbs an on-stage apparatus, all the while wearing a tailored little suit and bowler hat. When we meet Red Peter, it is to hear his titular report to an academy – and, in this case, we are the academy, as audience members are given white lab coats to wear upon entry to the theatre. The relationship is set up early: We might be in control in the bigger sense, but for the next hour, we’re here to listen to an animal who no longer identifies as an animal, and to, ostensibly, hear his perspective on his life “as a former ape.” But it quickly becomes very clear that what he really is is a creature tragically caught between two worlds with, as he reminds us, “no way out.”

Jodi Sadowsky gives a nuanced and very observant performance as Red Peter – not to mention an energetic one. It’s a physically demanding role. Not only because of the marathon-like nature of the text (she’s the only one on stage for the duration of this one-act play), but for the way she channels the character. Sadowsky’s performance is imbued with the physicality of Red Peter’s former ape self, occasionally reverting to full-ape mode at key moments. It’s a tic he’ll never rid himself of, but Sadowsky’s movements are also a take on the ingratiating way of the vaudevillian stage performer – a plaintive appeal to draw Red Peter’s audience in – and the combination of these two traits works well. It’s a crucial aspect of the performance that was arrived at after long hours of work with local dancer and movement coach Chancz Perry.

“I started working out a few months before, but I didn’t realize how physical it was going to be,” Sadowsky says. “I watched a lot of ape videos – that was a big thing for me before we got to rehearsals. But when we got to rehearsals, Chancz and Ryland, we really worked together to find out ‘What is the walk? How do you hold yourself? You were an ape, but now you’re a man.’”

Red Peter oscillates between regaling the audience of his dangerous passage from the other continent (and transformation to an semi-upright “human”) and compulsively climbing his little wooden jungle gym, bringing home the point that he’ll sadly never be comfortable in either environment. Sadowsky’s interpretation of the text hones in on the simultaneous admiration and resentment Peter has for his former captors – now his friends.

This split affinity also raises questions around how much our personas in general are performances, and what is given up through the process of assimilation. When Kafka wrote the story, it first appeared in Der Jude, and was interpreted by some as a satirization of the cultural assimilation of Jews in a time of rampant anti-Semitism. Director Ryland Alexander points out that the themes of alienation are still very relevant.

“Comparing what the world was like then and now, I think we’ve come a long way, but at the same time it still goes on,” he says. “We aren’t as accepting of people’s ideas, philosophies and ideologies, and we’re very quick to judge. So, what happens when we don’t embrace, and we force our ideals upon others? And I think some of the despair that comes out in the character is really what you see in society when people don’t have a way out.”

“We talked about how Red Peter just goes from one cage to another,” Sadowsky adds.

On a personal level, both Sadowsky and Alexander say they can identify with the feeling of being caught between two worlds.

“I moved back into the province about a year and a half ago,” he says. “And things have dramatically changed in the cultural landscape of the province. So, I’ve had to take stock.”

He says the play also taps into the push-pull between following one’s life’s work as an artist and having to balance that with the ability to support oneself. “That pull of ‘what is your ape?’ What is it that makes you feel alienated from society as a whole, from not giving culture its just cause?”

“One of the things I like about the metaphor is that anyone can figure that out,” Alexander says. “What they take away from this play, hopefully, is ‘What do I do to survive? And how do I feel about that?’”

In the end, we’re all just little monkeys trying to figure that out.

Kafka’s Monkey continues at Artesian until Sunday May 12.
2627 13th Ave.
Show starts at 8pm.
Tickets are available at Cobb Swanson Music, Bach and Beyond and through Golden Apple’s website.

(photo: Darrol Hoffmeister, Sharpshooter Photography)