08 November 2015

Shaliko’s 'Kafka: Father and Son,' Part 2

[As I wrote a few days ago in the introduction to the first part of “Shaliko’s Kafka,” this seems like a good time for an examination of the three productions by Leonardo Shapiro’s Shaliko Company of Mark Rozovsky’s Kafka: Father and Son.  I see it as a kind of companion to my report on Yukio Ninagawa’s Kafka on the Shore (posted on ROT on 11 September) which I saw in July.  I invite readers to go back to Part 1 (posted on 5 November) for an explanation of how I came to know these productions and for a run-down of the backstory of the three mountings.  Part 1 also includes biographical sketches of both the playwright and the director; Part 2 below is a discussion of the three productions of the play, the 1985 world première at the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, the 1990 Russian-language première at Rozovsky’s own Nikitsky Gates Theater in Moscow, and the 1992 Shaliko revival at La MaMa.  I’ve included a survey of the critical record for all the productions, including the Russian one.  ~Rick]


Leonardo Shapiro’s productions of Mark Rozovsky’s Kafka: Father and Son, though there were changes in the mise-en-scène from staging to staging and, since the casts were different, in the performance approaches, all shared some fundamental aspects.  “I wanted the whole theater to be a direct analog of the creative act itself,” explained the director.  “I was interested in setting up metaphorical space where the dialectic between creativity and authority could be played out in the present tense.”  He laid out the foundational image on which he based his staging concept:

[I thought of] a room where people seem to get bigger or smaller as they move from one part to another.  I remember a place like this somewhere on the road from Minnesota to Florida when I was a kid traveling with my mother in her Nash Rambler in 1952.  Anyway, this room in Tennessee or somewhere made me, at one end, bigger than my mother at the other.  In 1984 I taught a course in creativity at a college in New England; I had a book on consciousness that had a picture of a similar room from the Exploratorium in San Francisco.  I wanted a room in which Kafka’s and his father’s relative size was changeable.  I was also fascinated by the idea of making literal the metaphorical values of stage space (“blocking”).

The director’s notion was to create a space where “the action of the play literally takes place within a construct of Kafka’s imagination.”  This ultimately gave rise to the ideas of mirrored panels in the 1985 première at La MaMa and mobile Venetian blinds or jalousies in 1990 in Moscow and 1992 at La MaMa which changed the size of the space and even the relationships between the two Kafkas.  (Shapiro liked interactive sets—often accomplished with low tech because of The Shaliko Company’s constant impecuniousness.)  The playing area was bisected right to left by the frames but they moved progressively to a steeper and steeper angle.  When the blinds were used, they opened and closed to reveal Kafka, the Father, in varying amounts.  When closed, Kafka, the Son, was sometimes silhouetted against them.

The lynchpin for this concept, however, “was putting Kafka’s desk between the audience and the stage and structuring a running joke into the piece of Kafka sitting down to write and instead talking intimately in close-up to the audience.”  The actor’s eyes and face were lit by a desk lamp that left the rest of the sparsely-furnished room dark.

Shapiro intended to “make every scene as different as possible from every other scene.”  He set every scene in a different place: a bathroom, a bedroom, a Prague street, Franz’s study, and so on.  Then he “came up with tricks: a different visual space, a different visual trick, a different lighting trick for each scene.”  In some of the Son’s scenes Shapiro raised the house lights to prevent the total isolation of the actor from the audience—the character is supposed to be alone in a world of his own making, but the director always strove for a connection between spectators and performers—and some dialogue was delivered in a non-Realistic rhythmic manner. 

The world première of Kafka: Father and Son ran at La MaMa from 28 February to 24 March 1985.  The set designer was Derek McLane, the lighting was designed by Blu (the professional name of William Lambert), and the costumes were from Catherine Zuber.  The cast for the production was Sam Gray as Kafka, the Father, and Christopher McCann (one of the founding members of Shaliko in 1972) as the Son.  Rozovsky hadn’t even been allowed by his government, then under the leadership of Konstantin Chernenko, to come to New York to attend the début of his own play.  “When I first read the play,” wrote Shapiro, “I was struck by how many fathers and sons—but especially fathers—there seemed to be in the dialogue. . . .  My first thought was multiple casts.”  Discarding that idea as impractical, the director rethought: “My second idea was mirrors.” 

I liked the idea of Kafka surrounded by images of his father (or of himself), of the father being able to appear and disappear instantly on one side of the stage or another. . . .  It was a room divided by thirteen rectangular panels, each approximately ten feet tall and two and a half feet wide, with a roughly equal amount of space (two and a half feet) between them.  On one side, they were wallpapered and on the other, they were mirrors.  Each mirror was on a spindle with a little homemade axle and a separate wire, running invisibly to the back of the theater where two very busy and stressed out young techies had to manipulate all the mirrors together, separately and in sequence as if they were a real computer board on Broadway.

The mirrors, admitted Shapiro, were “gimmicks” or “tricks” that “could make the son be surrounded by ten fathers.”  Shapiro always liked gimmicks and stage tricks, and he’d been a devotee of stage magic since he was a boy, and mirrors, like other effects, such as masks, he used in his productions, are magical.  “They could make the father appear or disappear in any place and the same with the son,” he explained.  “So you could have somebody actually be offstage and then turn a certain number of mirrors and have him suddenly appear onstage.”  Shapiro stated that Rozovsky’s original text had no movement at all: it was just talking heads, like a radio play; but the intent of the mirrors was “to give a sense of the duplicity of the world of appearances.”  Shapiro and McLane worked all the effects out on scale models, testing all the angles of the mirrors for each scene.  Despite all this, one thing was not to scale: Shapiro’s and McLane’s eyes.  Nevertheless, the mirrors worked out technically but Shapiro was not happy with the overall effect, feeling that it tied him to “the world of appearances” instead of freeing him from it. 

The Soviet Ministry of Culture officially banned Kafka: Father and Son’s abortive Moscow première in 1983, observed Shapiro, while in New York, the lack of critical attention did the job with equal effectiveness: the play “was not ‘banned,’ but was painlessly invisible—no confrontation required.”  The New York Times didn’t send a reviewer at all and most other dailies of that era habitually ignored Off-Broadway and, especially, Off-Off-Broadway.  Of the few mass-circulation outlets that did cover this world première, the Village Voice, a publication with a reputation for reviewing off-beat performances, disliked the production.  Robert Massa dismissed Rozovsky’s script:

Clearly there are compelling links to be made between Kafka’s life and his fiction, but on a stage this cherished academic exercise seems pointless. . . .  Rozovsky tries to unravel [“The Judgment”] into its raw material, wrongly assuming he can capture the artistic process in reverse.  He loses the cool detachment and immaculate pacing that fire Kafka’s tale, leaving the actors little to do but randomly, repetitively, and pretentiously bounce subtext off each other.

Massa judged Shapiro’s directing “as arty and reductive as the script” and specifically criticized the “Chorus Line wall of mirrored panels” that made “the actors spend part of the evening bouncing subtext off reflections of each other.”  The Voice review-writer then recounted:

At the first public performance, the audience’s giggles suggested that the piece has potential as grotesque camp in the Edward Gorey vein. especially thanks to Christopher McCann’s wry, tense performance as Kafka junior—with the slight dip in his walk, he always seems about to break into a tango.  But the biggest giggle came on the line “We will never finish talking,” which arrives just when you’ve begun to wonder whether it may be true, though the production lasts only an hour.

As a conclusion, Massa averred: “As a portrait of tedium, this evening, unintentionally, is truly Kafkaesque.”

The only daily paper to run a review was Bergen County’s Record in New Jersey.  Peter Wynne started his notice by asking: “Could there be a better way to explore the life of writer Franz Kafka than in a Kafkaesque play?”  He characterized Rozovsky’s play as “brief but intense” and reported that the Russian playwright “brings a bluntness, a brutality that’s not to be seen on our native stage.”  Wynne felt that, though “a slow starter,”  the “presentation becomes more and more hallucinatory, the play’s power grows beyond the ordinary, and what seemed just another rehash of pop psychology becomes something much more artful.”  “[S]taged insightfully” by Shapiro, the reviewer affirmed, “by the play’s end the viewer’s sympathy is for both men.”

The only other timely coverage of Kafka was a pair of fringe papers.  In the New York City Tribune, a paper meant to pick up the mantel of the renowned New York Herald Tribune but published by the Unification Church from 1976 to 1991, Sy Syna wrote:

This unusual two-character drama with surrealist trappings is brilliantly performed.  But, like a pair of mice in a treadmill, the text forces [the two Kafkas] to go around and around with their agonized relationship to the point of monotony.

Syna finished up by saying of the “mutual love-hate relationship” shared by the two men that though it’s “initially fascinating, the sameness of each encounter begins to pall, despite the superb performances.”  In the Villager, a neighborhood weekly, Steven Hart declared, “There are three actors in” the Shaliko production of Kafka: Father and Son.  “They are Sam Gray as the father, Christopher McCann as Kafka and Derek McLane’s simple and powerful set.”  Hart explained: “All the elements of this production work together to shape the dissonant harmonies of Kafka’s world.”  After lavishing extravagant praise on Gray’s and McCann’s performances and Shapiro and McLane’s scenic concept, Hart complimented Rozovsky for “a script of great literacy” and Elena Prischepenko for translating it with “wit and grace.”  He closed by insisting, “I submit that ‘Kafka: Father and Son’ is the real thing.”

Paul Berman of The Nation, publishing after the production closed, lamented: Kafka: Father and Son, by Mark Rozovsky, arrived at the morgue recently after receiving, as far as I know, no more than two paragraphs of mention anywhere—and those paragraphs a spade and shovel. . . .”  The Nation reviewer went on to assert:

The play has some of the intensity of Kafka himself . . ., an intensity that comes from enormous compression of thought and feeling, so that every line carries a truth on the surface and another truth below and an electric charge from one to the other. . . .   [T]here were brilliant aspects, too, which managed to distort the sense of distance between audience and stage so thoroughly that Christopher McCann, who played Kafka the Son, seemed to loom as if in a close-up, like one of those famous photographs of Kafka’s face and haunted eyes. . . .

The Nation reviewer had some reservations.  Though Berman acknowledged the “brilliant aspects, too,” he felt that Shapiro was “a little techno-happy and broke the audience’s concentration by means of off-stage loudspeakers and mirrors that revolved undependably.”  Returning to his opening premise, however, Berman concluded, “And to think that such a play has come and gone without an escort of critics waving and shooting fireworks.” 

Irrespective of Shapiro’s disappointment with the press coverage or the mirror effect, the show was successful  and, the director asserted, Kafka: Father and Son “for some reason, sold out—this was a popular show.  We had standing room every night.”  Good reviews in Russian of the La MaMa production got back to the playwright in Moscow.  Shapiro’s première mounting of Kafka: Father and Son closed just as glasnost was beginning in the Soviet Union and Rozovsky felt free to stage his own play at his own theater.  He asked Shapiro to come to Moscow to direct it.

Rozovsky revised his script between pre-glasnost 1985 and its first Russian-language performance in 1990 and Shapiro rethought the production concept as well, “making it more musical, more dreamlike, more theatrical, and clarifying and sharpening the political and aesthetic content,” the director wrote in the 1992 Kafka program.    The director traveled to Moscow in December 1989 to cast the show and confer on the design.  Rozovsky was away in Minsk, then the capital of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic of the Soviet Union (now the independent nation of Belarus), on tour with the Nikitsky Gates company—and, due to a miscommunication with Gregory Speransky, the company’s technical and administrative director, the “respected artist” whom the playwright had selected to make the new design was out of the country.  Shapiro examined the rendering of the set, a “standard proscenium box set, very twenties deco elegant, but ultimately two guys sitting around a table talking.”  It was “very beautiful, but flat,” remarked Shapiro, and he decided, “This wasn’t what I had in mind. . . .  I wanted something much more immediate and three dimensional.”  He told Speransky that he couldn’t use the design and, in the end, the TD persuaded Shapiro to create his own as he’d done in ’85. 

The director didn’t want to use the mirrors again, as Speransky suggested, because “I thought that they were too showy and that they were too much about me and not enough about the show.  And I’d done them.  I mean, they turned out to be superficial.  I mean, they were a good idea, they were fun, I liked it, everybody liked it, but there was nothing to learn from doing it again.”  So he sat in the theater daily for 10 days and developed a new plan. 

Basically, it involved a couple of simple, wooden moving walls that were constructed like Venetian blinds with slats about four inches wide.  One side was wallpaper and realistic interior detail.  The other side [was] the text of THE JUDGMENT, the Kafka story that the last third of the play is based on.  The idea was that the wall would gradually pull back, scene by scene, to reveal a deeper and deeper stage space until it cut the room into two deep triangles, one for Kafka and one for his father.  By using very specific lighting, one could keep opening and closing the blinds small and precise amounts, revealing different scenes of the father as barely perceptible image, distant memory. or present reality.  For the last third of the play, the walls were transformed into the complete text of THE JUDGMENT so that the action of the play literally takes place within a construct of Kafka’s imagination.

Like the mirrors, the blinds, or jalousies, as they’re known in Europe (including Russia), were an overtly Brechtian device, of which Shapiro said: “The principle [behind the mirrors and the blinds] is physically the same.  The only difference is that the blinds are horizontal and mirrors are vertical but what they’re doing is the same action.  It’s definitely following through the same thought.”  The director, though, liked the Venetian blinds better and he used the same concept—with much less success, as we’ll see—for the 1992 La MaMa revival.

The casting was also a small study in crossed signals.  The director, who had idiosyncratic criteria for casting, recounted that he ended up with two pairs of actors: one with the Father of Rozovsky’s choice and the Son of Shapiro’s, the other with Shapiro’s Father and the playwright’s Son.  As Shapiro described the difference:

His son is . . . this kind of virile Russian leading man.  The son I want is this sort of weirdo gypsy who’s a composer and musician.  He doesn’t play their leading parts.  He’s a beautiful guy.  He isn’t as experienced an actor, but he’s, I don’t know, more sensitive, more frail.

The actors were paired up cross-wise: Shapiro’s Father with Rozovsky’s Son and vice versa.   (The description above of Shapiro’s choice for Kafka, the Son, isn’t so similar to Christopher McCann, the American actor who played the role in 1985, but it sounds remarkably like Michael Preston, who took the part in 1992.) 

The director returned to Moscow in April 1990 to begin rehearsals (in Siberia!) and Shapiro’s Russian-language première of Kafka: Father and Son ran at the Nikitsky Gates Theater (which co-produced) in Moscow in May and June and then went on tour in the USSR and U.S.  The cast was Vladimir Dalinski as the Father and Sergei Erdenko as the Son.  (I have no information about which of the two casts this was—it appears to have been the director’s Father and the playwright’s Son, but I can’t be positive—or what became of the other actors.  If they alternated performances, this was just the pair seen by the Moscow reviewer whose notice I have.)

The only Russian review I have is from the Moscow publication Sovietskaya Kultura [Soviet culture], in which Natalya Kashtanova declared, “The recent audience at the premiere of Franz Kafka: FATHER AND SON at Nikitsky Gates Theater witnessed a strange and alluringly intellectual show.”  Kashtanova seemed particularly to have appreciated the scenic design: “The fantastic shadows on the Venetian blinds [jalousies], the sharply defined light and darkness that separate people one from another, . . . and the sudden[ly] mobile space of the stage all make the performance grotesque and locate it at the junction of the real and the unreal.”  She summed up the production with: “There is an acuteness of the aesthetic perception of life, wherein lies [its] affinity to Kafka.” 

Shapiro was in Russia for five or six weeks, including four weeks of rehearsals; he remained in Moscow for a week or so of performances before leaving for home.  The production proved so successful in Moscow—it was still running at the Nikitsky Gates in 1992—that Rozovsky took it on a tour of Russia.  When Shapiro returned to the U.S. and his artistic residency at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, he arranged for Rozovsky and his troupe to come for a Russian theater festival at the college and present Kafka there in the fall of ’90. 

A year-and-a-half later, in January and February 1992, Shapiro was once again in production for a restaging of Mark Rozovsky’s Kafka: Father and Son at La MaMa, The Shaliko Company’s first show of the year.  Why was Shapiro, who described Kafka as “the most conventional piece we’ve done in a long time,” doing a revival of a two-character, psychological language play instead of his more usual Shaliko production: a physical, socially conscious, politically oriented, multi-cultural theater piece?  Shapiro explained flatly: “After 25 years in the New York theater . . . it’s all we can afford.”  

The Shaliko revival of Kafka opened on 25 January 1992 (after canceling its official opening performance on 23 January) and ran at La MaMa through 8 February.  The music was composed by Marilyn S. Zalkan, the lighting designer was again Blu (who lit the 1985 première), and the costumes were designed by Liz Widulski.  The cast was George Bartenieff, a veteran of the original Living Theatre (The Brig, 1963), as the Father and Michael Preston, who performed as Rakitin with the comic acrobatic and juggling troupe The Flying Karamazov Brothers, as the Son.  Shapiro imported the mise-en-scène, with its movable jalousies, from the 1990 Moscow production, but the acting was developed anew in rehearsal with and for his new cast.  (I attended many rehearsals and performances of this production between 7 January and 6 February.  I also interviewed the actors and some of the other artists.) 

A new element Shapiro added to his second revival of Rozovsky’s play, was music created by Marilyn Zalkan, a new-music composer who also served as the company administrator, based on the electronically sampled speech of the two actors in the production and then manipulated through a digital synthesizer.  Of this work, Zalkan said:

Leo and I decided that what the music was going to be was . . . solely made up of the actors’ voices.  That’s what everything was. . . .  He knows the kind of music that I do outside of theater is very sort of experimental.  I don’t use  any real instrument sounds.  I’ve been doing more and more with taking sounds of voices or whatever—you know, sounds that happen in nature or not nature—and altering them beyond recognition and finding the sort of interior rhythm, interior melodies that come from sounds in general.  That’s sort of what I was working with on Kafka to try to create a sort of tortured, internal, interior, existential feeling. 

Shapiro commonly worked with long rehearsal periods, though the Russian system didn’t permit it with the 1990 Kafka.  Circumstances didn’t, either, for the 1992 remount: the La MaMa revival of Kafka: Father and Son  was rehearsed in four weeks.  As a result, the production wasn’t even technically ready to go before the public on its designated opening night, 23 January, and the official opening had to be postponed for two days. 

The principal problem was the new Venetian blind frames.  The motors running the blinds were very noisy and the carriages Shapiro’s designer built here were so heavy and cumbersome that the movements were awkward and loud.  Shapiro blamed the difficulty on his set builder, who “overbuilt” the contraption—and the lack of money (to replace something that doesn’t work, for instance). 

A more pervasive difficulty, however, affected the outcome of the second La MaMa Kafka.  Shapiro counted on preview performances to hone the audience-performer relationship, the crux of his productions.  “A certain phase of the work starts with the first audience.  I can’t just sort of have it ready in three weeks,” he said.  “I thought I could because I’d done the show before.”  But because a good part of Shapiro’s notion of theater is a shared experience, the actors and spectators can’t share an experience if one participant isn’t there.  He could accomplish a certain amount of preparation for that interplay, but until the cast went before an audience, he couldn’t refine it.  The technical delays resulted in cancelation of the previews so the production opened in front of an audience before Shapiro and his actors had time to work on a relationship with theatergoers. 

Furthermore, Shapiro wasn’t a Stanislavskian; there were no discussions of psychological motivation during rehearsals and the director didn’t let the actors indulge their emotions and then discuss those feelings with them.  Nevertheless, I was surprised to see how conventionally Stanislavskian Shapiro directed his actors: without using the Stanislavskian jargon, he referred to objective, subtext, and urgency.  On one of the last rehearsals I watched, I noted that, though there was “[s]ome imposition of stylization ,” for the most part, the “[a]cting is pretty Stanislavskian (i.e., psychological realism).”  But then when I returned for the first public performance, I recorded: the “performance was very stylized—where and when did it come from?”  (I learned later that Shapiro habitually did this kind of style work during tech rehearsals at the very end of the rehearsal period, which I hadn’t attended.) 

Without previews, the production wasn’t ready by opening night.  The audience, including Jonathan Kalb of the Village Voice, was turned away.  Even by 25 January, some technical problems still had not been solved and the audience had to wait about fifteen minutes in La MaMa’s small lobby.  The performance, itself, was marred by technical glitches and actors not yet fully comfortable with their performances.  The critics, predictably, were not kind.  Wilborn Hampton, for instance, wrote in the Times, the first paper to publish a Kafka review, four days after the delayed opening: “Mr. Rozovsky has not written a play so much as stitched together a patchwork of simulated dramatizations based on Kafka’s epistolary and fictional indictment of his father.  For some reason, both Mr. Rozovsky and his director, Leonardo Shapiro, felt it necessary to embroider on the original.”  Hampton continued his disapproval: “Apart from such expansions on the author’s reminiscences, Mr. Rozovsky cannot resist the compulsion to pad out Kafka’s words with dialogue of his own.  The result is a pair of characters who often sound more like refugees from a Beckett play than a Kafka story.”  The Times reviewer added that “a major interpretive problem with ‘Kafka’ is its narrow view that the ‘Letter’ is little more than a monochromatic portrait of child abuse and that there is a political subtext beneath Kafka’s celebrated conflict with his father.  Kafka himself dismissed the former, and while one might read Kafka’s epistle as a ‘Letter to God,’ it should never be mistaken for a ‘Letter to the Commissar.’”  Hampton also dismissed the acting: “Michael Preston as Kafka and George Bartenieff as his father strive to turn all this into drama.  At a recent performance, they also had to contend with a host of technical problems that, among other things, brought the house lights up at odd moments in several scenes.”  In the end, Hampton didn’t have one positive word to say about the production.

Less than a week later, Jonathan Kalb of the Village Voice, who had been turned away from that canceled opening but was in the house on the 25th, referred to himself in the third person as “K.” in a review entitled “A Trial.”  He exaggerated the delay (“an eternity”), the weather (“The city outside was deep in snow”) and the temperature (“the frostbitten crowd”) to emphasize his displeasure.  Kalb described the play as a “response to totalitarian circumstances that no longer exist” and disparaged its “relevance and timeliness in post-glasnost Amerika [sic],” overlooking the ubiquitous examples of the suppression, even in the late-20th-century United States, of ideas both political (the party machinations during the 1992 presidential primaries to remove candidates from the ballot) and artistic (the congressional attacks on the NEA in 1989 and 1990 and the NEA’s introduction of the 1989 anti-obscenity “loyalty oath”). 

(I wonder what the Voice writer would have thought 23 years ago if he’d foreseen the arrival of Putin on the geopolitical scene.  Indeed, hadn’t he heard of repressive leaders even then in power, such as Fidel Castro of Cuba, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran, Jiang Zemin of the People’s Republic of China, Hafez al-Assad of Syria, Kim Il-sung of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, or Moammar Ghaddafi of Libya?  Some of these have left the scene since 1992 and others, like Putin, have come along, but even in liberal democracies, ideas have been seen to be suppressed—even in the 21st century.) 

In addition, Shapiro argued that the repression he was investigating in Kafka was, in part, self-repression; he saw the father as “a voice inside the son.”  While it is certainly not Kalb’s fault if the production did not successfully communicate this aspect of the play, Shapiro would undoubtedly have said that the critic had failed to make “the connection between events . . . that are hidden . . . by the official reality” that the Soviet Union represented the repression of ideas and with its demise, freedom of thought is no longer an issue. 

The Voice reviewer filled out his column with put-downs and quips by his alter ego, the bewildered victim of Kafka’s “The Trial,” but just reading his press packet before the performance began left him “filled with nebulous anxieties.”  He went on at some length:

For the next 80 minutes, K. watched and listened as this [famous] author was bleached of his celebrated weirdness and turned into a plain, pouty adolescent, his unhappy, paranoid, and strangely fruitful relationship to his father reduced to a distended round of kvetching, cobbled together from posthumously published writings. 

The Voice writer catalogued a host of directorial effects and technical problems which Kalb declared “led K. to the point of distraction.”  Kalb revealed that “he had been summoned to this play in order to talk about it afterward, but as it went on he began to feel more and more dull-witted.”  Kalb summed up his experience with “his last thoughts before losing consciousness”: “So much effort to rescue a dated, dreary, chatty script with directorial stunts and then bungled stunts . . . .”  Again, not a positive word appeared in the entire notice, calculated not just to be a pan, but to be dismissive and insulting.

The Kafka later audiences saw, however, was quite different from that first night.  The actor-spectator interplay didn’t develop, for instance, until the second week of performances (the time the cancelled previews would have run).  Nuances in both the acting and stage business had been added and unproductive things removed.  The psychical distance between the performers and the audience was closed later in the run, and audiences at the last performances were visibly affected by the encounter.  Reviews based on later performances described a more engaging experience.  Three more notices came out in February and March, all from limited-circulation periodicals.  First out was the Jewish Week, in which Paul Kresh described the “stormy two-actor drama” as a “fairly exciting evening in the theater, especially in the ingenious new production Shapiro has devised.”  Citing one of Kafka’s “main themes” about “the futility of trying to understand the ways of God,” just trying to “submit and obey His laws,” Kresh asserted that “this play . . . becomes at the same time a brooding drama about God the Father and man the son.”  He continued, “All this could have been staged as a series of conversations in conventional settings but Shapiro has ventured instead to do something more daring, to pitch the two protagonists in startling juxtapositions from constantly mobile orbits.”  While caviling that Kafka “does tend to drag,” Kresh described his experience as “electrifying,” even if it’s “at times slightly tedious by virtue of its very intensity.”  The reviewer observed that the actors “tear at each other in impassioned tantrums; then again, . . . whisper, murmur or mutter in acting performances shaped to approach the condition of music” in a play that’s “shrewdly scripted, stunningly acted and directed, and brilliantly staged.”

Next to publish was Henry Popkin in the Forward, the weekly English edition of the century-old Yiddish Forverts, who pronounced Kafka: Father and Son “not up to the level of ‘[Strider:] The Story of a Horse.’”  Comparing Rozovsky’s play with the original source material, the review-writer commented on what’s in the story and the letter that Kafka doesn’t include.  Popkin also recounted other anecdotes he’d heard about the writer, including one of an encounter on the street between Kafka and his father that ends with a riposte in which Kafka remarks “that love sometimes wears a forbidding image” and the Forward reviewer responded, “I find that incident more moving and more telling than anything in the play.”  Popkin’s final analysis of Kafka was:

Most of the speech on stage is evidently intended to be the equivalent of the words that might have been spoken  between father and son in ‘Letter to His Father.’  It is not.  The two actors . . . are more than adequate to the stylized demands of this play about a tyrant and his victim.  To make their actions more theatrical, Mr. Shapiro arbitrarily shifts them from one playing area to another and startles us with changes in the lighting, not always to good effect.

Finally, John Bell in TheatreWeek, citing “an extraordinary piece of theater, with two fine actors, . . . a fascinating script . . ., and a splendid production . . .,” wrote on 24 February, two weeks after closing, that the “father/son duel goes on like two good boxers for eight rounds,” and that the actors “show the [father-son] bond to be too complicated for easy resolution.”  Continued Bell, “Shapiro’s set is an apparently simple turn of the century interior which turns out to be capable of surprising transformation. . . .  The set is a marvel, in part because it works so harmoniously with the actors and the texts.”  As for the performances, the TW writer declared, “Best of all are the actors, who seize their roles with a kind of expressionist passion.”  It was a glowing review . . . and came too late (and in a package too small) to benefit Shaliko or the production. 

I don’t know if Rozovsky is still presenting Kafka: Father and Son, but he’s still running the Nikitsky Gates.  (Russian theaters tend to keep successful or important plays in their repertoires for years—even decades, remarked Shapiro: “The Moscow Art Theater still has The Bluebird that Stanislavski directed in rep.  That show must be 100 years old.”)  The text is published, but I don’t know how easy it would be to locate: Kafka, Father and SonA One-act Play for Two Actors, Based on Franz Kafka’s “Letter to His Father” and “The Judgment” ([Scarsdale, NY:] Theatre Research Associates, 1982).

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