In Kafka’s Monkey, an ape called Red Peter (Kathryn Hunter) addresses an academy audience (tacitly us) to give a symposium on how he was taken from captivity and learned to live among the world of men, adopting, as best he can, their mannerisms, speech, dress and decorum. To articulate what is no doubt already obvious, the story is a metaphorical treatment of cultural assimilation.
Adapted by Colin Teevan from a first-person narrative Kafka short story titled, fittingly enough, A Report to an Academy, this production of the Young Vic, imported from London, is one of those strange theatrical novelties that can have a gemlike singularity for some. Certainly it has a fringe sensibility, and the notion of actress as lecturing male monkey (in a bowler hat, vest and suit no less), holding stage for 75 minutes of reminiscence, sociological observation and philosophy is among the more daring conceits I can think of.
Whether it holds for you all the way through may depend on your tolerance for a narrative that has great verbal elegance but little story surprise—what else could such a story be but the chronicle of how unfortunate it is that assimilation only comes at the cost of one’s indigenous monkeyness?—but the gargantuan fearlessness, commitment and sheer bravura physicality of ironically diminutive Kathryn Hunter’s portrayal gives it every possible advantage. Her manifestation of the inner war between old instincts and new requirements is nothing short of virtuosic. (The director of the total enterprise is Walter Meierjohann, though over the piece’s gestation period, there were ten movement, monkey and dance specialists helping refine Ms. Hunter’s physical approach.)
If an important part of your theatergoing life is discovering unexpected nuggets of remarkable experience off the beaten path, Kafka’s Monkey well earns its keep on your “to see” list.
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