In Kafka’s Ape, director Guy Sprung of Montreal’s Infinithéâtre conjures the legendary and highly cynical story A Report to an Academy of playwright Franz Kafka. In his modified version of the short story, Sprung plunges into Kafka’s chilling world at the Infinithéâtre, which is located at the Bain St. Michel in the Mile End. In the original narrative, the ape, namely Red Peter, recounts his evolutionary journey from his cruel capture in the wilderness to the loss of his autonomy and finally his adaptation to the human way of life.
While Sprung preserves a fair amount of Kafka’s original text, he changes Red Peter’s profession after he evolves into a human being. In the Kafka original, he is displayed as a variety-show curiosity working as an able-bodied musician in the Music Hall, whereas Sprung’s modern-day version casts him as a mercenary soldier for a private company called Graywater as well as, of course, the star of a reality show called Combat Missions. Changes aside, the theme of the inhumane abuse of the ape and his disturbingly ironic “evolutionary fast-forwarding” from ape-hood to humanity remains a constant. Kafka’s condemnation of the monstrous treatment of humans by fellow humans and the decadence of warfare still comes through. Relevant a century ago in the World War I era, and several centuries ago when Europeans ruthlessly captured and enslaved ‘exotic’ indigenous peoples and brought them back home to display, it can be argued that this depiction of inhumanity is still relevant today with the ongoing War on Terror.
Sprung cunningly depicts humanity at its disturbingly warlike “height of civilization.” Instead of addressing the traditional academy Kafka had in mind, Red Peter speaks to an audience of Graywater company shareholders. This company – of which Red Peter is proud to say he has become a “full-fledged employee” – is a deliberate parody of the real-life Blackwater (now coincidently renamed ‘Academi’) corporation, a private United States Military company deployed in the Middle East and Africa. The company is known for its involvement in an infamous 2007 shooting of 17 Iraqi civilians. Spring is crafting a modern world of dystopia, “our own Hell.” Red Peter himself inadvertently outlines what he views as the pinnacle of human achievements as he says, “I had mastered the finer points of civilization: How most quickly and most effectively to kill another human being.”
Sprung aims to convey the frightening nature of human brutality and the evolution of war. He has a particular focus on the last decade or so, during which he feels that human cruelty has been perfected into a highly efficient, increasingly lethal, and profit-driven military industry.
Kafka’s Ape highlights certain ironies that may come too hard-hitting. The plotline is accompanied by video advertisements crudely depicting the intense militarism of Graywater or the so-called “peace” and “security” industry. The company’s slogans: “Live free or die” and “Make a killing – invest in Graywater,” illustrate Sprung’s marked lack of subtlety. Sprung can be accredited readily with a sharp directedness. Noteworthy is his eerie juxtaposition of a Graywater combat promotional video with a recording of a musical piece by Mozart.
Beyond the theme of human violence, Sprung highlights how Red Peter’s tale is also a story of an identity lost. This theme clearly shines through in Kafka’s narrative, Sprung notes, as Kafka was a secularized Jew who had lost his culture and religious identity in the sea of the European diaspora. The play, told through an overarching monologue style, makes it easy to understand these personal sentiments, particularly Red Peter’s sense of loss. His initial resentment toward his brutal capture and distaste for human life is obvious. We sympathize with his desire to imitate humans and become a “civilized North American” through the false promise of freedom. Though he denies any thorough allegiance to humanity, he’s fallen into a delusion, possessing a crazed enthusiasm for his new role as a combat instructor for the corporation, so much so that he has trouble recalling his previous life as an ape.
The ape protagonist, played by Howard Rosenstein, gives the audience a tangible sense of Red Peter’s mental struggle. We see this from his comical, idiosyncratic pronunciation of the English language to his commentary on the peculiar habits of human engagement. The same can be said for his expert portrayal of animalistic, ape-like mannerisms. Red Peter’s wife, an ape that “unfortunately never learned Human Being Speak,” is practically forgotten in the performance, and plays little more than the role of a prop. Sprung says the wife’s ‘less evolved’ nature provides an important contrast to Red Peter. She goes through the transformation of an ape into a circus creature animal spectacle donning by gaudy makeup and dress.
It becomes difficult to shake the unnerving feeling this play gives, which is at the core of so much dystopian literature. In a satirical story of an ape torn from the arcadia of jungle freedom and forced to endure a chilling descent into the depths of human corruption – which he honestly believes to be its zenith – it brings up question of we should find what is presented humourous.