Kafka's Ape

Franz Kafka’s short story A Report to an Academy takes the form of an informative lecture given by an ape called Red Peter. In it, he describes to the academics his journey from Africa’s Gold Coast to the music halls of Europe, a journey that includes training to become a music hall entertainer and learning to drink alcohol. Kafka’s Ape, adapted for Montreal’s Infinitheatre by Guy Sprung, updates the details – Red Peter is taken not to Europe by hunters but to America by private military corporation Graywater. He gives a keynote, not a report, and we are the shareholders of the fictional company rather than early 20th century academics. The story is the similar, albeit one that now has American military operations squarely in its satirical sights.

There is an important and admirable message behind Kafka’s Ape.

As the eponymous ape, Howard Rosenstein gives an incredible performance. His physicality is flawless: leaping around the auditorium with hunched back and wild eyes, then awkwardly straightening up by his lectern to continue his speech. He is utterly convincing as the newly humanised ape and his perspiration shows just how much effort it is taking to sustain such a commanding performance.

It is a shame then that Sprung’s adaptation doesn’t live up to heights of Rosenstein’s towering presence. By updating the focus of the satire to American foreign policy, Sprung gives himself almost too broad a target. Yes, the message is easier to relate to than Kafka’s original and it is easy to picture Red Peter as a hand-to-hand combat instructor but the political nature of the humour can’t help but come across as very heavy handed. The piece tries to make a number of undeniably important points about the commercialisation of warfare and the economic and physical subjugation of humanity in contemporary culture – some of these it succeeds in making well but others are made with the subtlety of the weapons that Red Peter now sells for Graywater. The name of the company itself is a lazy take on Blackwater, the American PMC whose former guards were sentenced for slaughtering unarmed Iraqi civilians, and is instructive of the level of satire often displayed here.

Clearly then there is an important and admirable message behind Kafka’s Ape. However, despite a terrific central performance, one can’t help but feel it would have been more effective for Sprung to ape Kafka’s formal subtlety a little more.

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The Blurb

Captured by mercenaries on Africa's Gold Coast and imprisoned in a cage, Redpeter’s only chance of escape was to himself become a walking, talking, spitting, hard-drinking member of the peace industry. Now for the first time, before you the shareholders, the primate and keynote speaker reflects on his journey from apedom to humandom. ‘Fascinating, provocative and funny. Don't miss it’ (Montreal Gazette). An unnerving satire on otherness and the growth of private military companies, inspired by Franz Kafka’s short story Report to an Academy. Adapted and directed by Guy Sprung. Starring Howard Rosenstein.