Break a (Third) Leg

Before you declare once and for all your utter disinterest in the private lives (not to mention the private parts) of public figures, take a gander at British playwright Alan Bennett's intellectual farce, Kafka's Dick. Far more than an underhanded jab at a deified writer's supposed anatomical shortcomings, Bennett's play is an examination of a society in which people would rather gossip and speculate about the private life of an artist than attempt to understand that person's body of work. ("This is England--it doesn't take much to be a celebrity here," one character notes early in the play.)

Perhaps best known for writing both the play and film versions of The Madness of King George, Bennett was an original cast member of the 1960 comedy revue "Beyond the Fringe," a collection of satirical sketches that inspired several popular British television comedies, including Monty Python's Flying Circus. So it naturally follows that Bennett's extended sketch of a play is loaded with irreverent, biting humor. But the nearly-two-hour show addresses serious issues as well, such as the artist's day-to-day life versus the public's notion of what an artist should be. It also skewers the vanity of creative types who actively seek fame while asserting their right to privacy. And under the adroit direction of Ed Baierlein, Germinal Stage Denver's current production of Kafka's Dick becomes a wicked sendup of revisionist-minded academics--an approach that has the added effect of making the playwright's juvenile remarks about Kafka's sex organ seem, well, minuscule by comparison.

The play begins with a prologue in which Kafka (Brien Fletcher) insists that his unpublished writings are to be destroyed after his death. His only friend, Max Brod (Joe McDonald), reluctantly agrees to carry out the tortured writer's wishes, only to renege on that promise by publishing a biography of Kafka (as well as several of the writer's masterpieces) in the years following his friend's untimely demise. After this opening scene, we're quickly transported to a present-day English living room, where Sydney (David Fenerty), an insurance salesman, is writing a treatise on Kafka for an actuarial journal. (In real life, Kafka made his living as an insurance salesman and did his writing on the side.)

As Sydney's wife, Linda (Jenny MacDonald), patiently listens to her husband pontificate about Kafka, Brod appears at the front door and introduces himself. Without missing a beat, Sydney and Brod engage in a discussion about their mutual literary hero, who suddenly materializes when Linda rescues a tortoise from her garden and washes it, instantly producing a somewhat befuddled Kafka (a sly reversal of Kafka's most famous story, The Metamorphosis, in which the writer awakens to discover that he's a giant insect). Soon the trio is joined by Kafka's father, Hermann K. (Alan Dumas), an ill-mannered, American-accented policeman who has a disgusting habit of rooting around in his ear with a toothpick and then putting the pick into his mouth. When Hermann learns that Sydney is writing an article about Kafka, the old man threatens to divulge the actual size of his son's penis to him--unless, that is, Kafka tells the revisionist biographer that the relationship between overbearing father and sensitive son was, contrary to the annals of hitherto recorded history, a positive one. Instead, Kafka goes on trial to exonerate himself, declaring, "This is persecution!"--to which another character dryly replies, "No it isn't. It's biography."

Fletcher's fully realized portrait of the alienated writer stands in sharp relief against the two-dimensional portrayals Baierlein has elicited from the rest of his cast. McDonald's generally likable Brod (he did, after all, rescue pages of great writing from the flames of oblivion) is colored with a sing-song, borscht-belt speech pattern worthy of Jackie Mason; during moments of high academic dudgeon, Fenerty juts his chin in and out as if he were a human Pez dispenser; as Kafka's bellicose father (evidently Bennett's personification of American cultural elitists), Dumas scratches his armpits and sneers his way through most of his lines; and as the sole voice of intuitive thought ("Like all men, you think your despair is important"), MacDonald often strikes poses suggestive of a vapid, sex-crazed housewife.

These simplistic approaches have the effect of clearly defining each character, but they tend to get old fast. Still, Baierlein manages to make a lively evening of theater out of Bennett's circuitous discourse. And when viewed in the context of recent current events--Kafka's not the only celebrity to have his genitals publicly probed lately--this production lends a whole new meaning to the term "Kafka-esque."

Kafka's Dick, through May 10 at Germinal Stage Denver, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 455-7108.


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