By Brent Schaus
I haven’t been in Victoria long (less than a year, having lived more than a decade in Montreal). After Theatre Inconnu’s performance of Kafka: The Musical, I know I’ll be in the audience for all of their upcoming productions. In the same way that I’ll watch anything starring Meryl Streep, or filmed by the Coen Brothers, or penned by Tom Stoppard, I’ll watch anything at which Clayton Jevne’s Inconnu tries its hand. Even if the attempt — like Kafka: The Musical — doesn’t succeed at everything it sets out to do, the results are fascinating. And risk-taking like this can produce moments of wonder — Theatre Inconnu’s Kafka has dozens of breathtaking moments.
Penned by award-winning playwright and musical composer Murray Gold (Doctor Who, Torchwood, Queer as Folk), Kafka: The Musical debuted earlier this year on BBC 3 with David Tennant in the title role. At the time, it was a radio play; Theatre Inconnu’s interpretation is the world-premiere stage production. The play finds the character Kafka (Premtim Plakolli), based on the absurdist author, near the end of his career. A mysterious impresario known only as Mr. Grossman, and represented by his wife/assistant Melina (Melissa Blank), wants to produce a musical based on Kafka’s life. The lines between reality and dream blur as Kafka receives strange visitors like Man #1 (Kyle Kushnir), who alternately threaten and entertain. It is a piece of meta-theatre, undercutting its own moments of melodrama, with questions of what is real and what is not.
Though I’ve only had the opportunity to see a dozen or so performances in Victoria so far, Plakolli’s Kafka gets my vote for best performance by a male in a leading role. His Kafka is a very stylized figure, approaching camp, whose moods range from nervousness, to rapture, to despair, to tender sympathy and most stops in between. Kafka stammers, and Plakolli’s stammer rivals Derek Jacobi’s as Emperor Claudius or Alan Turing. Somehow, Plakolli creates a series of mannered physical gestures with which he paints Kafka; as the character’s moods churn and change, these gestures change, as well. They lengthen, contract, and wrestle with themselves. Plakolli is an actor in command of his faculties.
Melissa Blank as Melina is lovely, funny and worldly like a mafia moll in a screwball comedy, albeit directed by Brecht. The scenes involving her Melina and Plakolli’s Kafka are among the show’s best. Kyle Kushner as Man #1 is hilarious and menacing, providing another stylized performance, reminding me of John Goodman in the Coen’s Barton Fink. It’s a pleasure to watch large men in graceful and comedic roles. Other performances in the production are hit and miss. Jess Shead as Dora is a breathtaking beauty, and sings like a songbird, but her acting voice is rather tentative. Richard Patterson as the Father is blustery and arrogant, yet … too often … strange pauses … creep … in.
Clayton Jevne, founder of Theatre Inconnu and director of this piece, makes some refreshing decisions in terms of the blocking (choreography?) of his characters. Many potential cliches-of-movement are avoided as he positions his actors in surprising spots on stage, and off. His background in puppetry serves him well, as charming moments occur under miniature proscenium arches. April Parchoma’s lighting design is superb, alternating between dramatic changes and very subtle choices. Robert Randall’s set design reminded me of the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, that classic piece of German expressionism, and does a lot of work in setting the mood. Some of the pieces on the set do double, triple and even quadruple-duty (keep an eye on the cabinet!). Ingenious.
Some audience members may feel, in the first act, that they’ve experienced a “bait and switch” — where’s the muscial? I suggest that this is intentional on the part of Gold (and Jevne). It’s a technique of German theatre of the period, a kind of “alienating,” forcing us to ask questions — where is the music? Why is this happening? As we ask ourselves those questions, and the music comes (and it does), our response may be all the more authentic. For example, watch for the powerful second-act moment referencing Kafka’s In the Penal Colony: I believe the power of that moment was heightened by Gold’s alienating choices of the first act.
Whether you are a fan of Kafka, Weimar-era Theatre, Doctor Who/Torchwood or just daring theatre, I strongly recommend you attend the world premiere of the stage production of Kafka: The Musical. You’ll be able to say you were there. M
Kafka: The Musical
By Murray Gold
Dec. 6-8, 12-16 at 8pm
Dec. 8 and 15 at 2pm
at Little Fernwood Hall (1923 Fernwood)