Kielbasia's songs are hilariously sour parodies; she twists a certain Pretenders song into "Back on the Lunch Line" -- on the accordion -- and her asides are perfect ("You know Italy I have nothing against because it's the only country that never invaded Poland"), but she's no good at other voices, like her dead grandfather's; and she rambles. I hope it's not taking Kielbasia too seriously to say that if Morin could learn the tricks of coherence from even a stand-up comedian, his monologues would have real force. Right now Kielbasia is just an amusing show out on the patio at Magda's; but the character's infused with a strong sense of both gay culture and Polish history, and it would be nice to see Morin do something more ambitious with her.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Franz/Kafka. By Mae Ziglin Meidav. Directed by Brandon Ladd Burkey. Starring Stanley Spenger, Robert Hamm, Daniel Talbott, and Marietta Hedges. At La Val's Subterranean Theater, 1834 Euclid (at Hearst), in Berkeley, through July 26. Call (510) 835-6053.

Preferring the company of his fiction to that of friends and family, Franz Kafka left few biographical traces. To unearth the man behind the weird and fantastical, pundits relied on letters and diaries. When a lowly clerk wakes up one morning to find he's been transformed into a detestable squiggle-legged bug, well, that became proof that Kafka was impotent. Subterranean Shakespeare's production of playwright Mae Ziglin Meidav's Franz/Kafka similarly relies on psychoanalytic complexes -- and a dash of racial malaise -- to make sense of the man behind the fictive masks. The play opens surrealistically: A medley of synthesized voices whispers excerpts from Kafka's stories, and a Grim Reaper type denies the furrowed-brow writer "admittance to the law."

This isn't going to be your typical biographic reconstruction. Subterranean takes us inside Kafka's confused and twisted mindscape. As a child (Daniel Talbott) he receives little familial comfort. His father locks him up in closets for the night, while his mother, a docile hausfrau, turns a blind eye to the father's abusive and adulterous ways -- the perfect ingredients for the making of a socially inept, brooding genius. His relationships with women fail miserably; his attempts to gain his father's approval are futile. (On one occasion his father tells him, "You're a failure as a man and a lover.")

But in Subterranean's construction -- a mesh of Victorian bourgeois melodrama and Dali-esque mise en scene -- Kafka isn't just the product of a dysfunctional household. In the larger context he turns out be a representative of a confused generation caught in the slipstream between two vastly different epochs, and Stanley Spenger's heartfelt performance brings us close to the conflicts. Unfortunately, however, the production tries to give us too much too quickly. Rather than develop a multidimensional Kafka -- as with the attempt to introduce his Jewish identity -- we get a cliched Freudian case study. A bigger problem is less with the production and more with a myth Kafka-ologists have woven around the man, one that Meidav obviously buys into. His stories aren't all brutally serious and perverse. They're often rollicking fun, especially the sex scenes. In his fiction and diary entries (most of which were censored by friend and editor Max Brod) Kafka was one of the first writers to playfully bring sex out of the Victorian closets.

Then there's this strange idea that Kafka was a madman, requesting his life's work to be burned. Kafka wrote two letters before dying of tuberculosis. He asked Brod (and not, as the play would have it, his love interest, Grete Bloch) to burn only his letters, diaries, and unfinished manuscripts, and not the completed but at that point unpublished The Hunger Artist and all of his other published work. He wanted to be remembered for his stories and not as the patron saint of the psychotic. Brod didn't carry out his wish. The result? Check out the play.

-- Frederick Luis Aldama

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