More than once during the Buntport Theater's Kafka on Ice, the character of Franz Kafka (played by Josh Hartwell) comments on how stupid it is to stage an ice-capade revolving around his life and work. "It's inappropriate!" he protests. As justification, toward the end of the play, another character offers up an aphorism once penned by Kafka himself (most likely about himself): "He runs after facts like a beginner learning to skate, who, furthermore, practices somewhere where it is forbidden."
It's an interesting way to tie it together -- but it's telling, and pretty awesome, that the Buntport troupe didn't dig up that quote until after they'd decided to put Kafka on ice.
The inspiration for the play, it's fairly well known, was actually the ice itself. "We were teaching a class, Evan [Weissman], Erin [Rollman] and I," says troupe member Hannah Duggan, who helped adapt the show an plays several characters in it, "and one of our students was like, 'I have a skating rink in my back yard,' and we're like, 'no you don't.'"
As it turned out, that student's father was a manufacturer of synthetic ice, which Duggan describes as "plastic with Armor-All sprayed on it," and the Buntport decided they had to do something with it. "So we thought, well, what could we do on ice? And Kafka just seemed like the best choice. Just because it seems so not on ice. It really couldn't be less."
In a weird Buntport way, this makes perfect sense.
That was all back in 2004, when the production was first staged -- soon after, the fake ice, along with all the production's setpieces and costumes, was stolen, and the show was gone -- but not forgotten by anyone that got to see it or even hear about it. For good reason: It's bizarre, hilarious, heartbreaking, brilliant and silly; as Westword own Juliet Wittman wrote back when it was first staged, "It's safe to say that no one else -- anywhere -- is doing theater like this." And that's still pretty much true. Now, with the help of some generous benefactors who helped the company acquire a new sheet of ice, it's back. And you're a fool if you don't go see it.
A big part of what makes this play so striking and different is the way that it's set up. The set design is bracingly minimalist: Just a room with the fake ice in the middle of it, a desk and a couple of creative props: Memorable ones include a tiny model of a bedroom, a remote-control cockroach (you really just have to see it to understand how great this is) and the startlingly beautiful use of a large sheet. As you can see from the photos, it's visually just really cool. Page down to see them.
Like Kafka, the Bunport spends this show running after the facts of his life like beginners learning to skate -- literally: When they decided to do this show, nobody could skate. "We still don't really know how," Duggan jokes, "but we do anyway." Still, while it's interesting, that quote is hardly a necessary justification. After all, Kafka had a famous penchant for the bizarre and the surreal, for placing straight-man characters in the middle of absurd insanity -- and if the play's underlying argument that Kafka's characteristic straight-man character was really Kafka himself is true, then maybe Kafka would have appreciated these proceedings more than even the play itself admits.