Opening night at Kafka’s Ape, I was, as usual, seated in the front row when Howard Rosenstein, in full costume as a chimpanzee evolving into a human, clambered down from the Infinitheatre stage and glinted at the closest audience member: me. “You know,” he said, “I could kill you ten different ways.”
I was on the verge of rising and declaiming, “Oh yeah, well, bring it on, Monkey Man,” but didn’t. I like to think I chickened out in the interest of high art.
What to write about this mesmerizing adaptation of Franz Kafka’s short story by Infini director Guy Sprung? Images of other shows with transmorphication kaleidoscoped in my mind. The Island of Dr Moreau, Planet of the Apes, Kafka’s Cockroach, The Fly. None of them quite right. This work is closest to Bulgakov’s Heart of A Dog, the Russian classic satirizing attempts by Pavlovian Soviets to develop a robotic “new man” from dogs.
Kafka’s Ape updates the theme to here and now, being a polemic against private military companies. One such company, here called Greywater (surely a riff on Blackwater, which had itself morphed into Xe Services and then into Academi) captures a chimp and transports him out of Africa to life as a zoo critter or a lab animal. But this beast is no ordinary simian.
It is Redpeter, who by force of will, learns to become somewhat human, to talk, smoke and drink. George Bernard Shaw (Man and Superman) would have seen this as an example of evolving by will power into a higher life form. Trouble is, humankind, especially as exemplified by Greywater, is not necessarily a higher life form.
Rosenstein’s physicality enhances his verbal uniqueness. His performance is outstanding. In a silent role as his chimp wife, Alexandra Montagnese is adept at climbing, flea picking and amusing the crowd. An amazing evening of theatre, not to be missed.
Kafka’s Ape continues at Infinitheatre, 5300 St. Dominique St., until February 17. Reservations: 514-987-1774.
Byron Toben has been following the Montreal theatre scene and writing about it for many years. He created the “Daily Playlet” newsletter at the Montreal Fringe in 1990.