Written by: Elisabeth Vincentelli
Theater instructions used to be simple: Turn off your cellphone and unwrap your candy before the show starts. Now the M-34 company, based in Brooklyn, is recommending that audience members watch a YouTube tutorial before tuning in to its production of Franz Kafka’s “Letter to My Father.”
In that short video, you learn that the play uses a multistream interface, which, in effect, means you are like one of those security guards toggling among various surveillance-camera views. There are three basic options — KafkaTV1, 2 and 3 — offering different perspectives on the action. This might be overkill since most of said action consists of the actor Michael Guagno reading Kafka’s text while sitting at a desk in what looks like a small office space, the wall shelves crammed with file boxes. (The many other offerings livestreaming on Twitch at the same time on Friday included the YouTuber Quackity playing games in front of at least 184,000 people; alas, the M-34 show drew far fewer viewers.)
The director James Rutherford, who developed the show with Guagno, tries hard to spice up the proceedings. First, there are those multiple camera feeds, whose tiles you can rearrange on your screen — though I found myself prioritizing the one with the most straightforward view of Guagno, as if unconsciously trying to recreate the experience of watching a stage.
Then there are flourishes of physical staging. The actor, for example, starts off in a tank top and spends the first several minutes silently picking up a mess of fallen papers from the floor. He then puts on a suit and proceeds to read the script, which consists of a long, anguished, angry letter from Kafka to his father and tormentor.
Kafka, the author of “The Metamorphosis,” wrote his missive (published in English as “Letter to His Father”) in 1919, when he was 36, but did not send it. Which is just as well, because it is unlikely that the letter would have prompted any kind of reckoning from Hermann Kafka: Not only was he an abusive despot, but according to a biographical note on the Franz Kafka Museum’s site, he and his son “had contrasting attitudes to life, family, marriage, employment and other people” — in other words, everything.
Guagno barrels through the dense diatribe, which makes it clear that Hermann has taken permanent residence in his now-adult son’s head: “Your threat, ‘Not a word in contradiction!’ together with the image of your raised hand, has haunted me ever since I can remember,” Franz writes.
Despite being a repetitive, off-putting screed, Kafka’s text is not a stranger to the stage, and it has even been turned into an opera. This is even the second go-round for Rutherford and Guagno, who presented another high-tech, conceptual production in Brooklyn in 2012.
The new show is fancy and looks sleek, but it is unclear what the staging is trying to convey. The office space may be a nod to Kafka’s own day job at an insurance company, and the surveillance visuals might suggest … well, it’s hard to say what, since this aesthetic has become banal by now, but let’s go with our modern world’s insistence on radically altering the very meaning of privacy.
Or Guagno’s juggling reams of paper, surrounded by boxes that probably contain more of the same, might suggest the endlessly dull grind of life. Curiously, watching him feels just as distanced and disconnected as watching Quackity’s inane antics, just a tab away — the closest Kafka may come to YouTube celebrity.
Franz Kafka’s Letter to My Father
Through March 28; m-34.org