Most of Franz Kafka’s major works feature an inscrutable tyrant, sometimes personified, sometimes not, that tortures some poor mortal. In 1919, Kafka wrote a long, scathing letter to the man who inspired all of those tyrants: his father, Hermann Kafka. A shortened version of this letter, cut to focus on Kafka’s recollections from childhood and his inability to marry, serves as the script for James Rutherford and Michael Guagno’s current production of Letter to My Father, running online through March 28. This is Rutherford and Guagno’s fourth time staging Letter, though the first designed for performance online.
In the letter, which never reached his father, Franz confronts and tries to liberate himself from Hermann. It is an impossible task, which Franz acknowledges early on. Hermann tormented and emotionally abused Franz his entire life, but the impossibility of their reconciliation goes deeper. The root cause is that Franz feels that the only way to be equal to, and therefore free from, his father is to marry. Yet, he maintains that he cannot marry, because a husband must behave as his father did and Franz, being in so many ways inferior, can never do so. Further, Kafka eventually realizes that even if he could marry, that would not actually offer independence from his father. By marrying, Franz will ape his father, and, in a sense, become his father. How, Kafka asks, can you be independent from something you are?
If this all sounds heady and abstract, it’s because it is. The central tension of this piece doesn’t come from a traditional narrative. Instead, it comes from the clash of competing subjectivities, or, perhaps more accurately, from Franz’s attempt to escape the limits of his father’s view of him. It is a drama that plays out in the murky, not-quite-concrete world of feelings, interpretation, memory, the shades of meaning of language.
That is, in the imagination of Kafka, but also of the reader/audience. It’s the type of writing best suited to the page, but here, Rutherford and Guagno’s theatricalization yields a strong if uneven product. The show is more good than bad, and is the type of production that you appreciate more the more you think about it. At its best moments, Rutherford (who directs) finds imaginative ways to visually represent some of Kafka’s more compelling ideas. The pair, through careful cutting, also succeed in finding some dramatic structure and a climax. Yet the show still suffers from stretches of monotony, from both Kafka’s prose and the earnest and imploring performance of Guagno (the sole actor).
The play opens on a suitably drab file room, scattered with paper and lit with a faint red glow (set and lights by Oona Curley and Stacey DeRosier), with Guagno’s white-undershirt-clad, slumbering form just visible. Guagno rises, tidies up, dresses in a tie and button-down, and lands at a desk with a microphone and laptop, where he spends the bulk of the play reading the letter. Dave Harrington’s original music, at once meditative and propulsive, lends an urgency to the opening. However, as Guagno gains momentum, we lose the nuance in Kafka’s thought. It can be difficult to trace and untangle some of Kafka’s ideas on the spot, and when “acted,” saddled with mimetic emotion, they lose their shape as distinct arguments and blur together into one large complaint.
As the litany continues, both Kafka in his prose and Guagno in his delivery start to sound grating, almost whiny. This is probably a reflection of the text more than anything else. While the same powerlessness at the hands of an indifferent master motivates Kafka’s major works, those major works also feature a sense of humor and a protagonist who maintains at least a detached indifference, if not a steadfast resilience, until the bitter end. But in Letter, Franz tells us at the start that he knows nothing will change, and continues to complain, with a defeatist and self-lacerating tone that makes it difficult to sympathize.
The video (Lacey Erb) and technology design (Casey Robinson) feature prominently in show’s best moment, the climax. For most of the show, the screen is split into three streams, each playing its own feed of the set: the main camera, focused on the desk with the microphone; a camera that Guagno moves to different positions around the desk and sometimes takes with him when he leaves his seat; and one subdivided into four streams, each showing video from a different angle of the set. In total, we often see six angles of the set at once.
But as Franz imagines his father’s response to his letter, all three of the streams show the main camera. Guagno undoes his tie, sits down, channels Hermann. The lights cut out, except for a powerful yellow glow.
Here we see Hermann as Franz imagines him. As the only thing lit onscreen, he glows so powerfully that he seems to be the source of light, illuminating everything Franz sees. Though we see the same feed on all the streams, the three are unsynchronized—one is synced with the sound, one runs ahead, and one behind. Because we associate synchronized sight and sound with the present, we view Guagno in all three tenses: past, present, and future. So Hermann looms in Franz’s mind, simultaneously, as everything that is, everything that was, and everything that will be.
At the end of the show, Guagno takes off his button-down, re-scatters the pages from the letter, turns off lights so that the red glow returns. He lies down. We are left to contemplate this image for at least ten minutes. The screen looks exactly as it did at the beginning, and I couldn’t help but think that Guagno would be stuck here forever, going through the same motions of preparing, reading the same letter, that will never reach the eyes, the ears, and the heart that it was intended for.