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A Hunger Artist

The phenomenon of hunger artists is explored in this emotionally wrenching, multi-discipline production.

Jon Levin in a scene from “The Hunger Artist” (Photo credit: Kelly Stuart)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

The phenomenon of hunger artists is a difficult concept to accept, yet for decades during the 18th and 19th centuries men starved themselves for the amusement of a leering public.  Josh Luxenberg has adapted a Franz Kafka story, A Hunger Artist, turning it into a fascinating stage show, taking advantage of the unique physical attributes of his collaborator, Jon Levin as the title character.  Ironically, Kafka, inflicted with tuberculosis, died of starvation while finishing this dark tale.

This world premiere production is from Sinking Ship Productions as part of The Tank’s Flint & Tinder Series, ingeniously combining a live actor, puppetry, music and, for better or worse, a bit of audience participation.  The end result is emotionally wrenching.

A Hunger Artist takes morbid subject matter and turns it into a metaphorical look at obsession and human suffering.  By focusing on one hunger artist, Luxenberg and Levin manage to make a universal statement that leaves the audience bereft, images of unbelievable suffering lingering long after leaving the theater.

Peiyi Wong’s set and costumes are essential elements in this storytelling, beginning with the a stage reeking of former glories—faded signs, torn curtains, broken lights—which mysteriously morphs into a carnival sideshow for the last revelatory moments of the show.  As the obsessive title character,  Levin in a cage disintegrates before our eyes.  Before meeting that end, he first appears as a ringmaster/impresario, in Wong’s brilliantly realized layered military style uniform.  He speaks mournfully of the passing of the age of the hunger artist.  Opening a theatrical trunk, he reveals a tiny puppet theater and an ancient wind-up Victrola which he uses to tell the history of hunger artists and one in particular, using stick puppets, crackling music and many voices.

Jon Levin in a scene from “The Hunger Artist” (Photo credit: Kelly Stuart)

The audience participation portion involved having several spectators step up on the stage to re-enact the exact story Levin has just taken us through, making this bit something of a time waster.

In the end all the elements—dramatically shadowy lighting by Kate McGee, eerie sound design by M. Florian Staab, witty puppets by Charlie Kanev & Sarah Nolan, illuminating props by Levin—come together in a deeply moving, even inspiring, comedy/drama that shines a light not only a sad historic institution, but on human endurance, pride and obsession.

Director Joshua William Gelb gathered all these elements—not to mention Levin’s astonishing nimbleness and reed-thin body—into a whole that astonishes and provokes in equal measure.

A Hunger Artist (through June 27, 2017)

Sinking Ship Productions

Part of The Tank’s Flint & Tender Series

Connelly Theater, 220 East 4th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.thetanknyc.org

Running time:  75 minutes without an intermission

Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (213 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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