In November 1919, the 36-year-old Modernist writer Franz Kafka wrote a searing 45-page letter to his domineering father Hermann, dissecting his tyrannical attitude and lifelong emotional abuse. That scathing indictment, which was never delivered to its intended recipient, provided the inspiration for Alon Nashman’s piercing solo show Kafka and Son. The intense one-hour adaptation, co-devised and directed by Mark Cassidy, is presented this month in the Fringe Encore Series at SoHo Playhouse by Theaturtle, Threshold, and Richard Jordan Productions, in association with The Pleasance, following award-winning productions in Canada, Germany, South Africa, and Kafka’s native Prague. I can affirm that all of the international recognition and acclaim for Nashman and the show are well-deserved, and that even more should be garnered for them in New York.
Combining heartfelt recitations with physical re-enactments and surreal segments that create a distinctly Kafkaesque mood, the performance is part revelatory reminiscences, part self-help therapy session, and part exorcism of Hermann’s hellish control over Franz’s life and temperament. Under Cassidy’s fervent direction, Nashman moves actively around the stage, transitioning from the timid, soft-spoken, and deeply-damaged son recounting the ongoing emotional horrors inflicted on him since childhood, to the loud, denigrating, and “unceasingly reproaching” father, who points and dictates and gurgles with condescending laughter. The changes in the actor’s voice and demeanor are impeccable, as he fully inhabits the antithetical characters, captures the essence of their torturous relationship, and exposes the source of the author’s anti-authoritarian themes and nightmarish imagery in their onerous interactions, admitting in his missive that “my writing was all about you.”
A redolent design provides telling support for Nashman’s portrayal. The set, by Marysia Bucholc and Camellia Koo, comprises a metallic cage, box, bare bed frame, and folding gate, all of which are used to potent effect in expressing the son’s feelings and giving physical form to the inescapable sense of confinement he felt under his father’s command, while copious black feathers signify everything from his writing pen to the darkness that surrounds him to the need to shed the plumage of his family in order to grow (the name kavka translates to jackdaw, a species of crow). Osvaldo Golijov’s original soundscape (pre-recorded by the St. Lawrence String Quartet) and Andrea Lundy’s dramatic lighting and looming shadows are perfectly synchronized with Nashman’s movements, and serve to heighten the eerie tone of Kafka’s personal story. Barbara Singer’s costume design of a vintage-style suit is effectively reconfigured to illustrate unnerving memories of swimming, the happiness Franz imagined was felt by others, and – referencing his famous novella The Metamorphosis – the transformation effectuated by his seminal letter.
Kafka and Son provides not only an intimate look into the troubled mind and disquieting writings of the literary icon, but also a powerful examination of familial dysfunction and the unremitting effects it can have on the psyche. SoHo Playhouse has done it again, with another world-class selection for its Fringe Encore Series.
Running Time: 60 minutes, without intermission.