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Kafka on Ice redux: Tonight at Buntport Theater

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Buntport Theater's Kafka on Ice -- created by the company in 2004 -- combines events from the author's life with incidents in his famous novella Metamorphosis (you know, the one that begins, "As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect").

The production, which debuts tonight and runs through December 17, is set on a large sheet of artificial ice. Erin Rollman, Hannah Duggan, Evan Weissman, Erik Edborg and Brian Colonna play all the characters from the women Kafka loved to his dictatorial father to a school teacher talking about symbolism to famed novelist-entomologist Vladimir Nabokov, who did his best to figure out exactly what kind of insect Gregor had become. All these actors had to learn to skate for the production. Only Kafka himself, played the first time around by Gary Culig, got to keep his feet firmly on the ground.

Franz Kafka is known for his despairing view of life, and the Buntporters manage somehow to honor this--and to respect his writing and vision--in a show that ranges from wryly humorous to belly-laugh funny. They take on some artistic and philosophical issues as well: family discord, the relationship between art and life, the way a work of art acquires new meanings and forms over time--like this goofy production itself. In the play, as in life, Kafka asks his literary executor Max Brod to burn all his works after his death. Brod does no such thing. And in betraying his friend, he makes him immortal.

The show received rapturous reviews when it first opened, along with two Best of Denver awards (for experimental play and actress performing in one). After that, all possibility of seeing it again seemed to vanish when, in a twist worthy of a Buntport script, some soulless villain stole the ice. But eventually a benefit was held, a benefactor appeared, and Kafka was back on ice in February, this time winning three Henry awards. Starting tonight, the company is remounting the show for three weeks only.

If you've been to Buntport before, you already know what to expect: playful special effects, creative interpretations by a cast of comically gifted actors, magical transformations--all done on a low, low budget. If you haven't, you're in for a revelatory night.

When Kafka writes a love letter, the words appear in light, flowing across the darkened walls toward his beloved. The giant beetle takes several forms, from an actor in a furry suit to a mechanical toy. The dour servant of the original story--played by Weissman in drag--wears a French maid's outfit. And the violin music that draws poor Gregor from his room is the theme song from Fiddler on the Roof. There's beautiful stuff and thoughtful stuff and funny stuff all mixed together and somehow it works as both a literary tribute and a giddy, joyful evening.

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