A Hunger Artist: Starvation as Dark Performance Art, Told Hilariously.
Its obvious that Jon Levin, as the performing man of the hour, is transfixed by the subject matter of A Hunger Artist. Much like the writer, Josh Luxenberg who has crafted this compelling and hilarious piece of multi-discipline storytelling about the performative art of starvation. It’s an adaptation of Kafka’s dark short story, first published in Die neue Rundschau in 1922, that utilizes puppets, toy theatre, shadow play (puppetry design: Charlie Kanev and Sarah Nolen; props and toy theater: Jonathan Levin), and audience participation (thankfully I narrowly escaped being called up by a very eager older gentleman sitting in front of me), all with an overwhelming sense of inventiveness and surprise. As one of the only pieces of writing that Kafka did not order burned after his death, A Hunger Artist centers on the man who is at one moment famed as the ultimate starving artist, but later has to experience the decline in the appreciation of his craft. Oddly enough, Kafka died of starvation indirectly because of his tuberculoses causing his throat to close up, as he attempted to finish this piece about an artist voluntarily starving himself for public display. The Hunger Artist, possibly a stand-in for the writer himself, is seen by many as an archetypical creation of Kafka; an individual marginalized and victimized by society at large. Thrown away when the fascination in his art faded. As presented by The Tank and Sinking Ship Productions (Levin & Luxenberg are both listed as Co-Artistic Directors), it’s clear the team all carry a fascination with this moment in time when society both marveled at and then discarded the spectacle of the professional hunger artist.
From the first moment we walk into the decrepit but beautiful proscenium theatre down in Alphabet City, East Village, it feels like a step back into time, one that director, Joshua William Gelb and his creative team (set/costumes: Peiyi Wong; lighting: Kate McGee; sound: M Florian Staab; based on an original design by Joshua William Gelb) have meticulously crafted. We are greeted by the one-time manager of the Hunger Artist, who is desperately trying to keep the fame and interest alive. As played delightfully by Levin, dressed as a worn down impresario, we are as engaged as he is in telling us his story. The use of the small puppet show is charming and inventive, but the transition from that moment of time to the glorious past is magnificent, fun, and thoroughly captivating.
Soon enough, we are witnessing the artist sitting in a cage, surrounded by audience members as admirers and witnesses. His metamorphosis is genuinely breath-taking and surprising, as shocking fun as our own participation. We are all here to see him have his first meal in 40 days. It is an intoxicating public stage performance depicting the grander moments when the audience paid tribute to this art form. With some further creative story telling, using theatrical invention that I won’t spoil by revealing, by the immensely talented Levin, the piece follows the artist as the glory and the adoration fades, and he is left unsure how to proceed. A circus becomes his refuge, but rather than being the center stage attraction, he is relegated to the side lines, a freak show of his own creation, where he starves himself into oblivion. The final moments with the circus ringleader and the Hunger Artist is devastatingly beautiful and ever so touching. Magical and clever is the only description that seems to fit the way it is presented.
There are many interpretations of the short story and the protagonist. Whether A Hunger Artist is seen as spiritual, artistic, or a parody of an artist, the final image of the panther stalking around the same cage that once housed the Hunger Artist stands as a strong contrast. Inventively presented to us, the animal is alive and aggressive, satisfied and content, as opposed to the misunderstood performer who at one moment in time, endeavored to rise above the animalistic nature of humans. Tragically, he has to deal with being discarded by his audience. Side lined out in the cold and the rain, desperate at first to be admired, but later, the Hunger Artist accepts that he has been forgotten by everyone except maybe by his one-time manager. It’s a startling and inventive tale, told with passion and finesse, lead by the only person who remembers. At first through humor and play, but ending on a darker and more disturbing note. It’s truly thrilling when we get to be invited into someone else’s obsession: the obsession of the artist, and the obsession of the art. The creators were obviously captivated by the spectacle of A Hunger Artist, and thankfully, through numerous theatrically exciting ways, they ushered us into that dark carnival world magically, and it won’t easily be forgotten again.