Review: "Letter to My Father" Offers New Angles on Kafka

Letter to My Father

Written by Franz Kafka; translated by Hannah Stokes and Richard Stokes

Developed by James Rutherford and Michael Guagno

Directed by James Rutherford

Presented by M-34 via Multistre.am

February 19-March 28, 2021 [UPDATE: 30 Mar. 2021: Run extended through April 2, 2021]

Michael Guagno. Photo credit: Eileen Meny Photography
M-34's Letter to My Father represents a thoughtfully conceived and wonderfully acted example of the innovative forms that virtual theater can take. The production takes Franz Kafka's 1919 nearly 50-page letter to his father, returned to him by his mother rather than delivered to its intended recipient, as the text for a captivating live solo performance that allows audience members to shift at will among multiple views of the performance space. The browser-based livestream presents viewers with a trio of video feeds—one the sort of medium close-up that would be typical of a Zoom play; one a small portable camera that can be moved by actor Michael Guagno (at one point, it offers a desk-drawer-level view, while at another it ends up on the floor with Guagno and remains there when he returns to his chair, leaving the audience the option to focus on the movements of his feet in a way that seems unlikely to happen at an in-person performance); and one that is most often divided into quadrants showing four further viewpoints—and leaves the moment-to-moment arrangement of these smaller windows within the browser to the viewer. The result is an experience that is neither the individualized gazes of the in-person theater audience nor the director-controlled gaze of film, but that does play in interesting ways with perspective. In doing so, it echoes the letter itself, which considers and, near the end, also plays with perspective.
Michael Guagno. Screengrab courtesy DARR Publicity
As Kafka, Guagno begins the play in a white undershirt and intermixes going through some of the contents of a room filled with shelves upon shelves of boxes, an archive of sorts that can be seen as a metaphor for his life experience and memory, with putting on a shirt, jacket, and tie. (The conclusion of the play enacts something close to the reverse of this process, signifying perhaps the shedding of the public-facing man or perhaps completing a kind of full circuit that aligns with the letter's closing reference to the truth's effect on living and dying.) Having dressed and retrieved the letter that he will read aloud, our protagonist seats himself at a desk crowded with a microphone, desktop computer monitor, and laptop, and dons a pair of headphones. The evocation of podcasters and streamers both imparts the sense that, his letter undelivered, this is a way for Kafka to make himself heard and, functioning in the way that many contemporary stagings of Shakespeare do, brings its more-than-a-century-old source text unaltered into the present though production design (with the character's suit a more or less temporally noncommittal bridge between eras).

It is telling that the letter first takes up the writer's fear of his father and the ways in which it has proved a mighty barrier. The letter is a torrent whose outpourings are masterfully dramatized by Guagno in all of their depth and variety of emotion. Kafka delves into his feelings of guilt and powerlessness, the conflict between his father's and his own views of his future and his character, the conflict between even their bodies when he was younger, and the role of his mother as mediator and (thus?) target of the family's frustrations. He puts his father's failings and hypocrisies on view, describing his writing as a drawn-out parting from the man and his failed attempts at marriage attempts at escaping him, but he also describes the feeling of being unworthy of his father's approbation whenever it did come.
Michael Guagno. Photo credit: Eileen Meny Photography
Guagno's inspired performance maintains a quick pace generally, with well calculated crescendos and rests. Details like the moment when he says that he made a note of a particular point at the time and then produces and reads a literal note on a scrap of paper reinforce the sense that this letter is the culmination of many years of thought and feeling. Formal details enhance the performance as well, such as the voyeuristic distancing effect of Guagno's moving out of range of the medium close-up camera for one section and the way that the final section, in which Kafka imagines his father's response to the letter (putting himself in the head of another, like good writers do) and then responds to that response, rearranges to great effect what we've come to expect regarding voice and visuals to that point.

You don't have to be a fan of Kafka to enjoy Letter to My Father, just a fan of theatrical innovation supported by an excellent performance.  

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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