Surrounded by, what could only be thought of as, boxed up memories of conflicts, insults, threats, irony, spiteful laughter and alas, pity, Michael Guagno (Hudson Stage Company’s Animals Out of Paper) suits himself up and sets himself down for the unbelievably taxing task of dumping out onto the floor the categorized deconstruction of the complex tension that existed between this particular father and famously complicated son. Impeccably presented by M-34, translated by Hannah Stokes and Richard Stokes, and developed by James Rutherford and Michael Guagno, Franz Kafka’s Letter To My Father is an intense dive into the dangerously turbulent waters that rage within the psyche of a traumatized son of the highest order. It’s the unearthing of a virtual estrangement that screams passionately and angrily from various unsynced angles of understanding and vantage points with a meticulously delayed enhanced delivery. The presentation is intricate and overwhelming, representing M-34’s first attempt to produce telematic performance under COVID, and the crackling adventure of complex familial pain and shame is worthy of our full attention, even when encouragement is needed.
Directed with a purity of vision by James Rutherford (CSC’s As You Like It), the deep unwinding analysis of the fraught relationship spools out with precision, even when it lingers and meanders with equal parts both frustrating and authentic. We are told the seed of destruction had its origin in 1919, when an ailing Franz Kafka wrote a letter to his father that speaks to all that is wrong between them. Embedded within this detailed production, the antidote of painful comparisons and cruel-minded threats are chased around the table with such a captivating presence that it is hard to take in and utterly complicated to fathom. Filled with his deep conflicts and contradictions of love and fear; anger and care; pride and shame – everything his father represents to Franz, the letter, like the sentiment, never actually reached its purpose nor its intended destination. But within this 90 minute presentation, the hopes and intense fears that are connected to his father are delivered forward like a fever dream monologue, ‘part YouTube confessional, part hidden-camera show, part seance’ through this startling and intense multi-camera live broadcast. It truly is a marvel of complexity and abstractionism, pacing around in and out of sight with the odd authority of a mad man, but it also sometimes distances us with the avalanche of emotional scriptures that are at times, both awe-inspiring in there intricacies, and overwhelming in their overly sensitive guilt-ridden denials. With tensions that are “more complicated than a jigsaw puzzle,” the pair’s unresolved relationship unfolds, page after flipped page, parcelled out with a fast paced energy that is as intense and unforgiving as the sound of the pounding of that final nail into the lid of Franz’s coffin. Not exactly the funnest ride in town, but it is Franz Kafka literally at the helm, so the outcome is exactly as it should be.
The deliberate angst presented, far off and dark, between father and son truly do come alive in the reading. It is filled to the edges with the coldest of alienation “as if it’s all my fault,” until a loud forbidding voice, like a devil-god up above, chimes in as protest against all that is being said about his behavior. “Perhaps you remember it too“, we are told, before Guagno goes down below, crawling under and on the floor, weighed down by the strong, tall, fixed father, who represented to the son, the measure of all things manly. Powerful stuff, and through the fascinatingly emotional voice of Guagno as Franz, Letter To My Father attempts to shove us down into the intimate and tragically guilt-ridden dynamic, engulfing us in the immediacy that live theatre once used to deliver up so well. It’s that similar feeling, one that I miss so much, of sitting in a dark room, alone and together, experiencing a complex quest that is both personal and unique. We are told that Kafka, when writing this letter, sat much like Guagno, at the ‘cusp of a terrifying future’ and the growing horror of the [COVID] world that surrounds us all. The threat is somewhat existential yet vivid, much like the image of a noose dangling right before your very eyes, threatening to bring about the end but never taking the next step, and forever forcing you to remain feeling the anxiety and fear of death approaching. The memorable production, with lighting and scenic design by Oona Curley and Stacey DeRosier; costumes by Pinwheel Pinwheel; media design by Lacey Erb; technology design by Casey Robinson; production stage management by Isaac VanCuren; and technical direction by David Rudi Utter, is almost overly clever, making it somewhat difficult to stay completely engaged throughout with the wordy orbit we are asked to observe. But the delivery, backed by the most hypnotizing original music by Dave Harrington, is well crafted and intensely engaging, not at all a simple sigh or an easy shaking of the head. Letter To My Father will emotionally “gut you like a fish“, at certain moments of intense deliberation, before you have the chance to box it away like a badly arranged marriage or a love/hate letter that is never delivered as well as it is read here. The piece needs time to unpack, in order for it to sink in and be felt, for the power of its sentiment is strong, and deserving of our time, before that box is set back on the shelf and forgotten about.
Online live performances run February 19 – March 28, 2021. Previews began on February 19 for a February 26 opening. Showtimes are Fridays at 7pm EST and Sundays at 3pm EST. Tickets are pay-what-you-can with a suggested donation of $15. Reserve at M-34.org. The running time is 90 minutes.