Prague Fringe 2015
Returning to Prague after year’s award nominated show Unveiling, Alliance for New Music-Theatre present an eclectic collaboration combing multi-media animations, original improvised music, traditional Czech songs, and live Cello accompaniment. The show explores both the darkness and humour of Kafka’s works, tapping into a universal expression of modern man’s alienation and angst very relevant to today’s audiences. ‘A remarkable mashup that… captivates and fascinates way beyond words’ (DCMTA).
Making a musical theatre piece out a classic short story by Franz Kafka is a daring proposition. The musical theatre traditions that I am familiar with are, with the rare exception of something like Sweeny Todd, mostly light and frothy. The Alliance for New Music-Theatre was steering into dangerous waters when they accepted an invitation from the Embassy of the Czech Republic to try. I am happy to report that they got where they were going and do a great job of taking us along for the ride.
The essence of the show is the relationships between young man Gregor Samsa and his family. His job of traveling to sell fabrics is their sole support. He works very long hours and has few if any creature comforts to show for it. His family is his parents and little sister Greta. As one early musical number describes, they use Gregor’s income for food, cloths, rent, beer, and cigars. Gregor wakes up one morning to find that he has transformed into a hideous insectoid and as such, stays in his room, unable to work. His family is at once repulsed and worried about him and themselves. The parents get mad that Gregor now cannot pay for Greta to go to music school to study violin. As I was watching the show I realized that The Metamorphosis could be seen as a metaphor for mental illness. Gregor’s sudden change into a being that cannot participate in human society is just what happens to someone who has a nervous breakdown. I have seen real families have the contradictory reactions of repulsion and worry for an afflicted loved one that we see here.
All of this is brought to us in the form of wonderful songs and dances performed by the amazingly talented cast. The Robert Wilson style of direction included the actors in constant motion, weaving in and out of the complicated synchronized choreography and score, while interacting with moving projections and the cellist. Ari Jacobson makes a terrific Gregor as he climbs, crawls and bends himself into bug like shapes and Kafka drawings without missing a musical beat or dropping a line.
Schuyler Slack plays the cello from the opening moment through out and in his hands the instrument beautifully creates music, character voices, sound effects and aural texture, sometimes switching between these instantly and seamlessly.
I suspect that the edition of this show the company brought to Prague has been stripped down from a more elaborate production. Here we see a set that consists of couple of bare risers, three bar stools and a white drop behind the action that becomes the surface for the animated cartoon projections that have been adapted from Kafka’s own illustrations. The performers, and cellist wear costumes that evoke early 20th century Europe and the use of lighting separates different locations and time frames somewhat abstractly.