Saturday, July 18, 2009

Review - The Hunger Artist (Human Group and Horse Trade Theater Group)

Review by Byrne Harrison
Photo by Romina Memoli

"I have to fast, I can't do otherwise."

Imagine that you have a unique talent. One that leads to acclaim from the masses - even though they don't quite understand it. You bask in that acclaim; it becomes your sustenance.

And then, tastes change and it all disappears.

What would you do with that aching need to perform?

This is the world of the hunger artist (Nick Fesette). Once renowned for his asceticism and his ability to fast, he is now looked upon as a mere oddity; just another circus attraction that you pass on your way from the big top to the menagerie. Where his impresario once set up his cage in the middle of the town square and people came from all around to watch, he is now just another attraction at a circus, sitting alone and forgotten, as the crowds hurry by him with cursory, incurious glances.

While this seems like a curse to the artist, it soon becomes a blessing. Now freed from his impresario's watchful eyes and his limit of forty days for any fast, the hunger artist can finally reach his true potential. He begins a fast that will be longer than any he has ever completed.

But will anyone, including the hunger artist himself, ever realize what he has achieved?

Adapted from Kafka's short story, "Ein Hungerkünstler," Nick Fesette's The Hunger Artist is a dark and expressionistic piece. Using only a bare, straw-covered stage, Fesette turns The Red Room into a cage, with the audience peering in through imaginary bars. At times, the hunger artist puts his arm through these bars, inviting us to marvel at how thin they are. And though he performs for us and makes us laugh, the bars that separate him from us are not nearly as strong as his disdain for people like us.

This disdain is starkly illustrated by the way he sees the impresario and the people who come to observe him (Julia Crockett, William Slater Welles, Stephen Arnoczy). Loud, crass, and awkward in movement, they are grotesque, nightmarish creatures, who at once sustain him and torture him.

Fesette gives a visceral and mesmerizing performance, inspiring a range of emotions from sympathy and disgust. Crockett, Welles and Arnoczy also excel, especially given the completely unrealistic acting style called upon by the play. Their Weimar-flavored costumes, no designer is credited, complete the effect, and help reinforce the difference between them and the hunger artist, who is clothed only in a pair of black leggings.

While Fesette has created an affecting piece of theatre and excels as an actor, the weakness in The Hunger Artist is in its direction. A short play, lasting only an hour, The Hunger Artist nevertheless occasionally drags, most obviously when dealing with the "others" being portrayed by Crockett, Welles and Arnoczy. Giving the actors odd bits of business - repeating phrases, fainting on or otherwise interacting with the audience, stylized movement - is effective in setting them apart from the hunger artist and showing how he feels about them, but a little bit goes a long way. Although this short show would be even shorter if some of their business were trimmed, it would more easily hold the audience's attention.

Expressionistic and experimental, The Hunger Artist is a challenging production that will not be to everyone's liking. But in a world of realistic theatre, it's nice to see something so completely theatrical, and Human Group is to be commended for staging it.

The Hunger Artist
Performance authored by Nick Fesette
From the story by Franz Kafka
Additional texts by Sarah Kane, Tadeusz Rozewicz, Georg Buchner
Lyrics for "Baal's Song" by Bertolt Brecht
"Panther's Song" by Winston Cook Wilson
Original Music: Winston Cook Wilson
Lighting and Stage Management: Randi Rivera
Produced for Human Group by Lindsey Hope Pearlman
Publicity: Emily Owens PR

Featuring: Nick Fesette, Julia Crockett, William Slater Welles, Stephen Arnoczy

The Red Room
85 E. 4th Street

July 16, 17, 18 - 8 PM

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