A Hunger Artist is the title of a short story by Franz Kafka, and it sounds like something that could only come from the imagination of the author of The Metamorphosis. But “hunger artists” are in our own midst; they just go by different names: performance artists à la Marina Abramović or endurance artists such as David Blaine. Their art might be called many things but it isn’t usually considered amusing (“painful” comes to mind), and Kafka likewise constructed his story as a cautionary tale in the “pride goeth before the fall” genre, ending in death.
So it’s a relief to discover Sinking Ship Productions’ adaptation of Kafka’s allegory as part of The Tank’s Flint & Tinder series showcasing innovative new work. Adapted by Josh Luxenberg and performed by Jon Levin, their Hunger Artist brings both a mischievous sense of humor and an appropriate corporal versatility to this solo show about a most extreme case of extreme performance.
Kafka is thought to have been inspired to write his tale by a certain Giovanni Succi, a professional faster who amazed crowds across Europe around the turn of the century with his stoic refusal of food for as many as 40 days. Kafka’s version offers a dark twist, of course; his artist enjoys similar heights of fame but human cynicism eventually brings the curtain down on his sold-out shows: audiences decide he must be a fake and his public abandons him, leaving the artist to accept lesser billing in a circus sideshow where he is eventually forgotten and starves amongst the royally treated elephants and panthers. Kafka’s story apparently fueled renewed public interest in the art form, but if Succi’s methods never earned the fame of the Pritikin and the Paleo diets for weight loss, there’s good reason for it.
Kafka’s sympathies lay with his misunderstood artist, but to make A Hunger Artist work for their audiences, Luxenberg and Levin and director Joshua William Gelb prefer the persona of the artist’s business partner, the Impresario, to speak to us in the words Americans understand best: fame and fortune, and perhaps also overindulgence. Levin’s Impresario is a huge, bloated figure in dusty tails, a threadbare top hat and a heavy Old World accent; he looks as if he were inflated from the inside (which, in reality, he probably is – costumes by Peiyi Wong). Many years have passed since the Hunger Artist’s glory days, but the Impresario is only too eager to recount them for us, using a miniature theater and a portable gramophone, to which the historic Connelly Theater, whose stage appears in woeful disrepair here (sets also by Wong) lends its own period atmosphere.
Levin, who trained in Lecoq improvisational and movement techniques, proves an irresistible master of ceremonies; when he announced he was going to have to bring audience members on stage to really show us what a hunger performance was like – in the flesh, so to speak – my fellow spectators eagerly scrambled up the stairs to join him and threw themselves into the exercise (dignity be damned!), under Levin’s impish directions.
Levin has more than one surprise up his sleeve, in fact, or under his coat as the case may be. His portly Impresario is also a sort of Russian nesting doll hiding the hunger artist under all those layers – an interesting visual metaphor for this road manager’s “devouring” of the artist, who is after all his bread and butter. Our discovery later of the rail thin artist comes as a bit of a shock in comparison (dressed in only an acrobats unitard, Levin might tip the scales at 130 lbs, by a generous guess…). Shock, but also awe: his Hunger Artist is sinewy and athletic with an animal-like grace. We are captivated by his power, so that his eventual demise into a skeletal puppet after nearly 100 days of fasting is even cause for a wink, especially in its juxtaposition with his crassly commercial circus home. Kafka asked his readers to consider the moral risks of self-sacrifice when practiced for purely egotistical reasons; Luxenberg and Levin borrow the aesthetic cues of Kafka’s settings but their ironic gaze seems to fall on the fleeting rewards of self-performance for a distracted public: a message that is very much of our age.
The run of A Hunger Artist couldn’t be better timed, either, in the wake of the closing of the Ringling Brothers Circus in late May. Animal rights issues aside, the demise of the circus certainly has something to do with a public that is both too blasé to be wowed by damsels shot from cannonballs and too tech savvy to take interest in a clown with a squirting flower or a canine unicyclist. Thrilling us in the 21st century is not a business for 19th century ringmasters. And when no one is cueing to peek inside our Facebook show anymore, when our Instagram and Twitter followers decline, what then? The hunger artist knows: 24/7 exposure is a dangerously thankless art.