The Skittish Yiddisher | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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The Skittish Yiddisher

Ken Prestininzi takes on Kafka's conflicted feelings about Judaism in a surreal new play.




Trap Door Theatre

In late 1911, when Itzhak Lowy brought his Yiddish theater troupe to a Prague cafe, 28-year-old insurance clerk Franz Kafka showed up night after night. As Kafka wrote in his diary, he loved the exaggerated acting, extravagant costumes, schmaltzy melodrama, and exotic "shabbiness" of these shows. A quiet bureaucrat who still lived with his parents, Kafka wasn't just indulging his artistic fancy--he was stepping into a cultural, religious, and familial hurricane. And the complexity of his feelings informs this Trap Door Theatre midwest premiere of Amerikafka, Ken Prestininzi's dizzying take on what Kafka's Judaism meant to him.

In the early 20th century, Yiddish theater symbolized everything that "respectable" German-speaking Jews wanted to leave behind. The 1899 Prague anti-Semitic riots, which destroyed many Jewish-owned businesses, were fresh in the city's memory; Kafka's father, a successful shopkeeper, had escaped attack by registering his family as Czech nationals. Like many "civilized" Western Jews, he'd made every effort to assimilate and forswear the "old ways," even giving his children German rather than Jewish names. When Kafka befriended Lowy, championed his theater, and even lectured on "the Yiddish tongue," he was standing in defiant opposition not only to his father but to the dominant culture.

Still, Kafka's relationship to "backward" Judaism was hardly simple. Though Harold Bloom asserted that Kafka "quite simply is Jewish writing," the writer regularly denied or evaded the connection. "What do I have in common with the Jews?" he wrote in his diary. "I don't have anything in common with myself." And when he sat down to write his first novel, Amerika, in 1912, he figuratively ran screaming from the cultural minefield of Prague: his plucky, robust 16-year-old alter ego, Karl Rossmann, sails to America in search of a new, innocent self. The journey is a failure for Rossmann--who descends the social ladder into oblivion in an ironic subversion of the American myth of the self-made man--as the novel was for Kafka, who left it unfinished.

With a kind of perverse glee, San Francisco playwright Prestininzi turns this escape fantasy back on its creator. In the vibrant Amerikafka, Lowy appears to the consumptive, dying Kafka and leads him Dante-style back into his tortured relationship with his own faith and identity. A phantasmagorical character like many in Prestininzi's play--in the stage directions, they often exit by floating out the window--the impresario brings his Yiddish theater into Kafka's tiny sickroom to show him a stage adaptation of Amerika. Bearing only a superficial resemblance to the original, their version is garish, schmaltzy, and cheaply done. To make matters worse, the lead actor hasn't shown up and a naive stagehand is playing the central role of Frankie K, Kafka's literary alter ego once removed. Nightmarish, inexplicable interruptions continually disrupt the show. A grim, sword-wielding Statue of Liberty grows from a "speck" at the beginning of the piece into a human-size figure that crashes through Kafka's window. Characters from his other writings, including a cockroach as big as a man, turn up unexpectedly. Seminal figures from Kafka's life--his literary champion Max Brod, his sometime fiancee Felice Bauer, his tyrannical father--barge in unannounced. As in a dream, they never identify themselves. His three younger sisters are a nameless, twittery trio who splash onstage through a slit in the door and swat flies.

Doing away with plot, cause and effect, and linear time, Prestininzi comes up with a two-hour play that seems to be heading in every direction at once. In one scene, when Kafka is meeting Brod for the first time, he reminisces about the first time they met. Later in the play he meets Brod again for the first time. Lowy seems to be orchestrating all the fragments, however, and eventually two parallel stories begin to emerge: Frankie K's struggle to leave his personal and cultural history behind and Lowy's to maintain his Jewish identity in an increasingly fearful and intolerant Prague. In effect Amerikafka is a kind of exorcism of Kafka's divided soul, with each half hurtling toward oblivion. In the blank slate of America, Frankie K devolves into a mindlessly optimistic nobody, and Lowy--like Kafka's sisters--ends up in a German camp.

Some viewers may be puzzled, bored, or pissed off by Prestininzi's difficult script. To audiences unfamiliar with Kafka's life and literature, the characters may appear merely odd figures with a mysterious influence on him. But the audacity of the play's illogical "story" gives rise not only to ambiguity but to evocative collisions and epiphanies. It's as though we were watching the bold, cheap exaggerations of Yiddish theater blown apart in Kafka's fever-ridden imagination. The liveliness of Lowy's theater is everywhere, but the conventional literary structures that held it together have fallen away, just as conventional Jewish life in Prague collapsed at the hands of the Nazis.

The recklessly adventurous Trap Door is one of the few nonprofits in town uninterested in giving audiences what they think they want. Thankfully director Kate Hendrickson does nothing to simplify Prestininzi's bewildering text, trusting the suggestive power of confusion. And though her actors' exaggerated performances often degenerate into shrill histrionics (Tom Bateman as Kafka veers between harrowing pathos and nonsensical screaming), the sheer force and volume of the acting help keep this unwieldy script barreling forward. Ingenious set designer Ewelina Dobiesz and lighting designer Richard Norwood transform the tiny bare-bones space into a hallucinatory yet self-consciously clunky world, and Sarah Bendix's marvelous, marvelously vulgar puppets give Redmoon a run for its money.

Watching Amerikafka is hard work--I often felt utterly defeated by Prestininzi's maddening vision. But, as in any contest, watching the maneuvers of an extraordinarily talented opponent is mesmerizing.

When: Through 7/30: Thu-Sat 8 PM

Where: Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland

Price: $17; two for one Thu

Info: 773-384-0494

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Beata Pilch.

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