Music

Music review

Kafka encaged, writing to his father

Alon Nashman performed the one-man theater piece “Kafka and Son” in Rockport.
Michael J. Lutch
Alon Nashman performed the one-man theater piece “Kafka and Son” in Rockport.

ROCKPORT — If one were to assemble an anthology of pleasant family-friendly reading for Father’s Day, at a guess, Franz Kafka’s “Letter to His Father” would not be on the list. This undelivered missive is one of the great paternal indictments in all of European literature, written by a shy, sickly, painfully sensitive 36-year-old Kafka and addressed to his brusque and authoritarian father, Hermann. Think of it as the ultimate anti-Hallmark card, a lengthy and psychologically acute brief in which Kafka argues his case, explaining why he has grown up terrified in his own home, why he remains utterly estranged from his father, and why all of Kafka’s own writing is a kind of “long-drawn-out leave-taking.”  

So while “Letter to His Father” may not be the source to crib from when drafting next year’s big toast to dad, it turns out this cri-de-coeur does make for immensely compelling theater. That much was proven on Saturday afternoon by a Rockport Chamber Music Festival performance of “Kafka and Son,” a searing one-man theater piece based on the letter. It was performed by Alon Nashman, directed by Mark Cassidy, and co-created by both men. 

By way of a score, this one-act play makes use of recorded excerpts from “Yiddishbbuk,” an early work by Osvaldo Golijov, whose current role as Rockport’s composer-in-residence seems to have served as the occasion for bringing this piece to town. On Saturday afternoon in Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center, the Golijov linkage was further underlined with a sensitive live performance by festival musicians of the composer’s “Lullaby and Doina.” In this context, the latter piece functioned as a kind of overture, one that telegraphed both the darkness and yearning at the heart of the piece about to unfold.

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Hermann Kafka had grown up in poverty in southern Bohemia, and he apparently never tired of weaponizing his own hardscrabble childhood as a way of browbeating his bookish and timid son. “Letter to His Father” decries this treatment and the kind of empathy gap it created, an inability between father and son to recognize the authenticity in each other’s pain. This is just one of many intergenerational failings that Kafka anatomizes. Others include the broken vessel of his father’s watered-down Judaism as well as the brutal and seemingly arbitrary administration of paternal authority. “I, the slave,” Kafka wrote, “lived under laws which had been invented only for me.”   

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If that last line sounds suspiciously like an animating theme of Kafka’s own fiction — the grinding down of one’s humanity beneath the weight of a distant impersonal force — one can then understand why so many chroniclers and critics over the years have turned to the father-son relationship as an interpretive key to Kafka’s larger body of work.

Happily, “Kafka and Son” leaves you to ponder such matters only in hindsight. Rather than involving itself with facile life-determines-art equations, or condescending to its viewers in the manner of an overeager biopic, this piece trusts its own material and approaches it with admirable restraint. We are simply plunged into the letter itself, here transformed and adapted into a riveting monologue.  

Perhaps taking a cue from Kafka’s famous quip about a cage that went out in search of a bird, the set consisted of all manner of cages. Nashman, portraying both Franz and the Hermann of Franz’s memory, climbs on the cages, uses them as a desk, crawls inside of them, and in an arresting final image, discovers the bird within them. His performance was a tour de force. Meanwhile the excerpts from “Yiddishbbuk,” one of Golijov’s most rugged and pressurized scores, helped shape the fierce emotional compression at the center of this work. And the stage at the Shalin Liu Performance Center, while not large, proved just right for an intimate theater piece of this nature. Let’s hope, under its new artistic leadership, the festival continues broadening its programming in this vein. 

KAFKA AND SON

At Shalin Liu Performance Center, Saturday

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.