Prague Fringe 2014
An ingenious metamorphosis of the Metamorphosis, this refined imaginative show will leave you intellectually stirred and philosophically fascinated.
Kafka’s original Metamorphosis, a thrilling parable, evokes a sense of reversal. The ‘what if?’ nature of the story, in which Gregor Samsa awakes from uneasy dreams to discover that in the course of the night he has been transformed into a giant insect, is a seminal novel of surrealistic absurdity. The fluidity of Kafka’s prose, its glimmering muscle, conveys the story in straightforward terms with a downwardly spiraling logic of steel.
I attended J.B. Alexander’s performance expecting a dramatization of Kafka’s novella only to be pleasantly surprised by the metamorphosis of the Metamorphosis he has so cunningly contrived. Far from a rehashing of the novella’s elemental conceits, Alexander has arrived at a thrilling conceit of his own. What if a writer in the 21st century awoke from uneasy dreams to discover that in the course of the night he had been transformed into… Franz Kafka? As Alexander expresses it in a witty aside: “What if you went to sleep as Salieri and woke up as Mozart?” What follows is a step by step account of the attempts that this modern day ‘Franz Kafka’ makes first to embrace his transformation and then to dispel its effects. As Alexander says, explaining his wish to exorcise his possession by Kafka, there is something nearly infinitely sorrowful in publishing books that everyone lauds but that he himself has had no true part in creating. After all, it is merely the work of this ‘Ibbur’ (a Hebrew term referring to psychic ‘possession’ by an incarnating presence) that everyone is celebrating. Not to mention that in taking on Kafka’s gifts he’s also inherited his terrifying loneliness.
Alexander deftly handles this material, funneling up Kafka’s brilliance in lines like “Life is merely terrible” while generously elucidating the inner meaning of the phrase. According to Alexander, by a subtle shift of emphasis, Kafka’s phrase is optimistic. Life is merely terrible—and as frightening works like Kafka’s In the Penal Colony abundantly illuminate, things could be far worse.
Especially fascinating is Alexander’s Kafka-haunted description of three types of people: those with true genius, those without any genius (and lacking even the desire for it), and those cursed by enough genius to create but not enough to create anything of lasting value. It’s such a potent summation of so many contemporary people’s self-assessment it even reduced a girl in the audience to tears.
My only real critique of this enchanting show is that it left me hungry for more. Since its initial performance at the Manhattan Repertory Theater in 2011, Alexander has continued revising the script, even conjuring up two distinct endings. In his first ending, he cited Kafka: “It’s as if only the shame of it will outlive me.” In the current ending, Alexander offers us a circular ‘Eternal Returnish’ glimmer of redemption.
Offstage, Alexander displays the same open-minded aura of inquiry which comes through so strongly in his show.
When asked what his most Kafkaesque experience was here in Prague, he smiled wryly.
“I went to place flyers for my show at the Kafka museum. Two sweet old ladies at first warmly assented, then hesitated ‘But… actually, we don’t have the authority, you have to talk to the chief.’ So I went to a guy in a red shirt who politely listened but then informed me that he was only the chief of his section of the museum. ‘You have to talk to the Uber-chief. I’ve never met her, but here’s her email.’ I emailed her, but I never got a response.”
So, did you ever place your flyers?
“No. But I got this story which is even better.”
As Alexander further confided over a couple of post-show drinks:
“Reading Kafka is like experiencing life. It can be frustrating, confusing, boring but there are moments of humor and the occasional flash of illumination.”
When asked how he feels about performing his play in Prague, Alexander gushed like a schoolboy “Doing this play here is like a dream come true.”
“Because it’s HIS city.”
Alexander truly is possessed by Kafka, and through this intellectually scintillating play his possession will possess you too.