Ladies and gentlemen, look upon this man sitting on his meager pallet of straw, this unfortunate man who, for the amusement of all of you here, has foregone physical nourishment for 40 days … this Hunger Artist, who without dispute the greatest practioner of his craft the world over has sat in this very cage in this mighty hall and has not taken even the slightest morsel of sustenance.
So, states the impresario of A Hunger Artist, and if one needed any more evidence that the Baltimore theatre scene is vibrant and exploding, there was Baltimore Theatre Project’s limited performance run of this show last week. Once again, the small Preston Street theatre proved itself to be the source of creative and innovative theatre, and it was a homecoming for a Baltimore playwright to boot. Baltimore native Josh Luxenburg, a graduate of the Baltimore School for the Arts, wrote the script for the one-man play starring performer Jonathan Levin. The two are cofounders and directors of Sinking Ship Productions based in Brooklyn, and they brought the show to Baltimore after successful runs Off-Broadway and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland.
A Hunger Artist is based on the Franz Kafka short story of the same name, and is in fact the last story Kafka approved for publication shortly before his death in 1924 (he ordered the other unfinished works to be burned). As he finished editing the story he was suffering from laryngeal tuberculosis and was literally starving to death, as the illness caused his throat to close up and left him unable to take in any nourishment. What emerged from that suffering was a quintessential Kafkaesque treatise on art, suffering, the conjunction of the two, and the limits of pure artistic sacrifice. Luxenburg’s adaptation brings that vision powerfully to life and is an example of physical theatre at its best, incorporating puppetry, Victorian miniatures, old vaudeville style performing, a simple set with innovative staging, audience participation, and a little bit of theatre magic to create a truly memorable experience.
A Hunger Artist tells of a performer whose performance art is to not eat for 40 days, in a cage and as public spectacle. The story’s arc spans the peak of hungering artistry from its glory days of to its long decline, as just another side show act outside the main circus tent, the object of neglect and disbelief among the thoughtless passers-by. The show transforms from a nostalgic tale illuminating a forgotten art form into a dark and exploration of suffering of art, as public spectacle, and the price and purity of artistic integrity.
Performer Jonathan Levin describes the story’s base as an illumination of a “performing art form that used to be popular back in the day when thousands of people would come –huge opera houses with packed audience til late at night, torches – this whole opulent spectacle and then … how now nobody is really interested in it anymore.”
And there’s more: “I think there was definitely something resonant for us about that as theatre artists trying to make work today and also feeling unsure about the place of theatre as time moves forward – so that’s very much a part of the piece itself, and there’s also even something a little bit darker under that, the idea that this written in 1922 so there’s a little bit of a premonition for darker things to come, a person sitting in a cage written by Kafka who’s a Jew in Prague, and so the kind of ominousness of it is also something that we found that we found in the story and also in our adaptation.”
For Josh Luxenburg, it was a joy to bring the show to his hometown, and he talks excitedly about the way the Baltimore theatre scene has exploded since he was young. He is also dedicated to the vision of contemporary theatre that he and partner Levin strive to create with each work, what he calls the DIY theatre movement. “That movement, and I think it is a movement, is one of the most exciting things that’s happening in theatre in Baltimore and around the world,” he says. “Because theatre has gotten so expensive to make, the DIY scene is a response to that because it’s people reclaiming the ability to do this ourselves,” he continues. “We want to make theatre that feels like it is handmade and feels like it is something that the audience is a participant in rather than separated from by a distance, by a screen or by a stage.”
“What’s most interesting,” Luxenburg declares, ”is that people are mixing in different techniques, different kinds of ways of making theatre and of experiencing theatre and there’s a lot of interest in immersive theatre, in really erasing the boundaries between audience and performers and a sense of what does it mean to bring in multidisciplinary work.”
A Hunger Artist is another success from the Baltimore Theatre Project. We all need to make it our business to be filling those seats, for each and every innovative show they produce.