Poor Franz Kafka. The prewar prose master of the sardonic grotesque has taken a terrific drubbing in the English-speaking world, not the least by substandard translations. These have all but eviscerated the caustic irony of his slyly subversive chronicles of man’s quest for dignity in the dehumanizing bureaucratic purgatory of the Industrial Age. Reason enough to celebrate director Elena Vannoni’s dazzling, German-language staging of Kafka’s mordacious, 1917 monologue in which a renowned talking chimp, Red Peter (H.P. Vannoni in a tour de force performance), recounts the five-year odyssey from his kidnapping in the jungles of Africa to his fame in the music halls of Europe. Aided by English supertitles (in a translation seasoned with heretofore missing, Kafka-esque flavors by Bruce Anderson), and a large video screen, projecting and sometimes abstracting extreme close-ups of the onstage action, H.P. Vannoni (who is also credited with production design) articulates Red Peter’s determination to escape the fate of life behind the bars of a German zoo by at first aping the loutish behavior of his captors, and later augmenting that with the education and elocution of “the average European.” But by restoring the original, guttural poetry and syntactical music of Kafka’s mother tongue — even as he parses the subtexts with languidly pregnant pauses, mercurial shifts from simian rage and wistful regret to shocked comprehension — Vannoni the actor also eloquently underscores Kafka’s supreme irony: By taking on the attributes of human civilization, Red Peter has merely traded one kind of cage for another. Zoo District at the Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City; closed. (323) 464-3375, exit-production.com.
in LA WEEKLY, by Bill Raden