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A Hunger Artist by Franz Kafka

Jon Levin                                       photos by Kelly Stuart


                                                              by Julia Polinsky


The story of A Hunger Artist couldn’t be much simpler – a man has had a successful career as a “hunger artist,” starving himself in public, but audiences dwindle, and so does he. Sinking Ship Productions has created a complex and interesting performance piece from Kafka’s story.

The awkward opening scene spends a lot of effort on setup. The Impresario (Jon Levin), in top hat and caped greatcoat, walks into the theater, addresses the audience directly, pushes props around, plays with miniatures. After that so-so start, the show really gels when Levin does a presto-changeo transformation from Impresario to Hunger Artist, with puppets, toys, and audience participation.



The rest of A Hunger Artist becomes a wrenching vision of what it means to be an artist who cannot fully practice his art. The Impresario describes the Hunger Artist as one of the greats, talks of his accomplished fasting and his gloomy personality. Forty days without food! That would make anyone gloomy!


The Impresario doesn’t understand that the Hunger Artist’s real gloom comes from knowing that he could fast longer, be a greater artist, because it is easy for him to hunger. By the end of the story, in pursuit of his art, the Hunger Artist has arranged to perform in a circus, and fasted in plain view far longer than forty days. (It kills him, of course, and he is replaced by an exotic, vital, vibrant circus animal.) 


Although the Hunger Artist was a star in his day, in this show, the real star is the staging. The artistry of it! The complexity, the tech, the tricks overshadow even Levin’s harrowing performance. From shabby theater to seen-better-days curtains, from magical steamer trunk to manipulated shadows, from teeny tiny toys to puppets evoking pathos, you have fun watching the technique drag this sad story into the light.


Hunger Artists were popular in Europe from the 1880s to the 1920s (roughly, Kafka’s lifespan). According to The Impresario, a hunger artist could be booked into the top theaters in the biggest cities, and still make a profit. Tastes changed, however, and audiences stopped paying to see a man starving himself, opting for livelier entertainment.


Modern tastes, however, mean that author Josh Luxenberg’s A Hunger Artist is one of those “nothing much happens, so how can we expand it to the stage?” moments on which Off-Off Broadway theater thrives.


Levin, Luxenberg and director Joshua William Gelb collaborated with all the designers – lighting, set, costume, sound -- to create A Hunger Artist. It’s as if they’d collectively said, “Nothing happens? Great; it’s a splendid opportunity for stage business in a one-man show! We can do cool tricks!”


Peiyi Wong’s deconstructed, partially destroyed set and heavily significant costumes become freighted with meaning. Kate McGee’s terrific lighting design makes heavy handed use of light and shadow. M. Florian Staab’s sound design works its own delightful trickery.


Is it worth schlepping to East 4th Street to spend 75 minutes of your time to see Kafka? Not just Kafka, but A Hunger Artist? In this case, yes, very much so. For Jon Levin’s performance, for the stage magic, and to think about what we do for art. Well worth it.


Franz Kafka’s A Hunger Artist

At the Connelly Theater

220 E. 4th St., between Avenues A&B

Tickets $15-35;

June 7 at 8 p.m.; June 9, at 7 p.m.; June 10 at 7 p.m.; June 11 at 3 p.m.; June 13 at 8 p.m.; June 15 at 8 p.m.; June 16 at 7 p.m.; June 17 at 2 p.m.; June 17, 2017 at 7 p.m.; June 18 at 8 p.m.; June 19 at 8 p.m.; June 20 at 8 p.m.; June 21 at 7 p.m.; June 21 at 9 p.m.; June 26 at 8 p.m.; June 27 at 8 p.m.