Yiddish Theater

Kafka's Quest

NEW YORK -- "Kafka's Quest, a.k.a. Kafka/Samsa" is a quasi-realistic play by the late playwright Lu Hauser that imagines the family life of Gregor Samsa, the tragic victim of Kafka's "Metamorphosis," and his friendship with an historic Yiddish Theater actor and actress in Prague, prior to the events of the famed novella. Set in Prague in 1912, it portrays Gregor Samsa (the name Kafka personified himself with in the book) as torn between his father, who wants to keep him on the straight and narrow with a full time job, and his friendship with artists of the Yiddish Theater, who want him to join and write for them. His father’s bankruptcy forces Gregor to become the breadwinner of the family, which has been forced to take in two mysterious lodgers to make ends meet. The back and forth between the two poles of Gregor's life will culminate in "The Metamorphosis." Theater for the New City will present the play's world premiere February 26 to March 15, directed by Manfred Bormann.

The play is not meant to be historical, but it is based on facts and accessible to anyone who is familiar with Kafka's famous novella. The plot of "Metamorphosis," with traveling salesman Gregor Samsa trying to adjust to his new condition as he deals with being burdensome to his parents and sister, is well known and foreshadowed in the play. There are lodgers in "The Metamorphosis" whom Hauser enlarges in her play, characterizing them as oppressive, threatening characters who take over too much of the household and to whom Gregor's father kowtows excessively. They are used to project into the future and foreshadow the Nazism in Prague's future.

Franz Kafka's actual history with Yiddish Theater is less familiar, and needs a little explanation. In 1910 and 1911, as Kafka was approaching 30, he was strongly influenced by two Yiddish Theater troupes who toured to the Café Savoy in Prague, a shabby little place with a playing area and a piano in one corner. The second of the two troupes featured Itzhak Lowy (sometimes written Yitzhak Levi, Djak Levi and Jizchak Löwy) and his players, among whom was the zaftig, fading yet alluring Mme. Trassik (sometimes recorded as Mania Tshissik). Largely from Kafka's diaries, historians have traced how these Yiddish Theater experiences reversed Franz's attitude toward Eastern European Jews and their traditions, which had been routinely scorned by his family. (The Kafkas were so assimilated that on Franz's Bar Mitzvah invitation, guests were invited to his "confirmation.") Franz found himself infatuated with Mme. Trassik and became a close friend of Itzhak Lowy, ultimately even helping to produce an evening of Lowy's solo works at the Jewish Town Hall in Prague.

Literary historians have explained how these Yiddish Theater performances probably influenced Kafka's nightmares: the productions were dreamlike in being simple, emotional, unrealistic, jumping illogically in narrative and tinged with the bizarre. The two assistants in Kafka's novel "Das Schloss" have been traced to two choric characters in Lateiner's play "Der Meshumed (The Apostate)". Through this experience, Kafka realized there that Jewish theology, ritual and folklore were neither non-artistic nor cut off from him. His realization is documented in "Speech on the Yiddish Language," his remarks before the evening he helped produce, which were recorded in shorthand by Elsa Taussig, the future wife of the leading Czech critic Max Brod. Kafka was also, quite simply, bewitched by the emotional effusiveness and spontaneity of these "old world" Jews, which stood in contrast to the coldness and reserve of his own German-speaking family. (His father opposed his friendship with Lowy, admonishing "If you lie with dogs, you get fleas," which infuriated his son.) Franz testified in his diary to a haunting loneliness in his youth that reverberates with particular cultural meaning. He even wrote that the German language prevented him from loving his mother as she deserved; that the word Mutter had a "Christian chill." He came to perceive himself as an alienated Western Jew, a condition which was to become oddly universal. But his ambivalence toward Judaism--"What do I have in common with the Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself"--mirrors his ambivalence toward just about everything and the paradoxes that dominated his spirit. Hauser's play does not recreate the Café Savoy productions, but Kafka's relationships with Lowy and Mme. Trassik are intricately drawn, much like they might be in a historical novel.

"Kafka's Quest, a.k.a. Kafka/Samsa" will be staged in TNC's Cino Theater on a unit set with a theater on one side (representing the Savoy Café and its Yiddish Theater) and the family's living room on the other side.

Playwright Lu Hauser (1924-2011) was a classical actress who turned to playwriting. Her works have been produced at EST, The Cherry Lane, The 92nd Street Y, The Public, The Actors Theater of Louisville, Intiman Theater of Seattle, the New Stage Theater of Jackson, Mississippi, and The Goodman Theater in Chicago. Her "Lincoln on Hester Street" was awarded the first place prize by the American Alliance for Theater and Education and was produced at Theater For the New City directed by George Ferencz, in 2009. "About Ethel Rosenberg" was directed at La MaMa in 2005 by George Ferencz. "Kafka's Quest" had a reading at La MaMa in 2006 that was also directed by George Ferencz. Her "Not Dead Yet," "New Parachutes" and "The Client (a.k.a The New Montana)" were produced in the inaugural season of The 42nd Street Workshop. Her other plays include "The Anton Series," "One in a Million (a.k.a. King of Coney Island Frank)," "Boardwalk" and "Crane in Love (a.k.a.Sadie)."

Director Manfred Bormann has directed "Mother Courage" by Brecht and "The Tragicomedy of Don Cristobita and Dona Rosita" by Federico Garcia Lorca in Istanbul, Turkey; "The Servant of Two Masters" by Goldoni in Syracuse, New York and in various off-off-Broadway theaters in New York; "How Mr. Mockinpott was cured of his Sufferings" by Peter Weiss, "Bremen Coffee" by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, "The License" by Pirandello, "A Report to an Academy" by Franz Kafka, "Endgame," "Not I" and "Krapp’s Last Tape" by Beckett, "Self-Accusation" by Peter Handke, "Uncle Vanya " and "On the Harmfulness of Tobacco" by Chekhov, "Lucretia," "Pater Familia" and "Identity Unknown" by Don Donnellan, "Skerrys" by Christopher Jones, "The Trial of Klaus Barbie" by Fred Pezzulli, "Orange Bees" and "Waiting to see Carmen Basilio" by James DeMarse and "Jubilee" by George Tabori.

Music for the piece is by Stanley Walden, a clarinetist with the New York Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera, and Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, professor at the Juilliard School and SUNY Purchase and guest teacher at Eastman, Yale, and SMU. From 1990-2001 he chaired the Department of Musical Theater at Universitaet der Künste, Berlin. He is author of many operas, symphonic pieces and chamber works. His theater music includes more than 50 productions with George Tabori, collaborations with Martha Clarke, scores for The American Place Theatre ("The Kid) and The Open Theater ("The Serpent," "The Mutation Show," "The Winter Project") and the Broadway and International productions of "Oh! Calcutta!" He wrote an opera on the Kafka family, titled "Liebster Vater," which was commissioned by Bremen Stadttheater and also produced in Berlin, Weimar and New York.

The cast features Dana Watkins as Gregor Samsa, G.W. Reed as his father, Cordis Heard as his mother, Sara Barnett as their servant girl, Paul Battiano and Matt Walker as the lodgers, Derrick Peterson as Itzhak Lowy and Nikki Ferry as Mme. Trassik. Set design is by Anna Yates, Costume design is by Brooke Cohen. Lighting design is by Yuki Nakase. Sound design is by Cliff Hahn.


February 26 to March 15, 2015

Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. (at E. 10th Street), East Village

Presented by Theater for the New City

Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Sundays at 3:00 PM

$18 general admission, $15 seniors and students

Box office (212) 254-1109,
Running time: 2 hours with intermission.