By Molly Cox
The narrator in Franz Kafka’s short story “Report to an Academy” is a formerly wild ape who endures intense physical and psychological torture – similar to what the audience must endure during Scena Theatre’s one-man theatrical version.
Report to an Academy is the tale of Red Peter, an ape who learns to act, speak, and think like a human in order to survive. After he is captured, he spends several miserable months locked in a cage on a ship bound for Europe. Although he is tormented by the crew and his movement is severely confined, he is determined to find a way out of the cage. He imitates the sailors on the ship to entertain them, knowing that he must find a way to survive his confinement even though he will never reclaim the freedom of his old life. The story reflects the many dark times in history where individuals were forced to assimilate into western culture in order to survive.
Red Peter is portrayed by Robert McNamara, Scena Theatre’s founder and artistic director. The play is short (60 minutes), and from start to finish, I was never quite sure what to make of it. There were elements of greatness – Red Peter’s disheveled appearance and frequent outbursts conveyed the sense that he was on the precipice of madness. He dances several time for the crowd, which is undoubtedly comedic but also tragic, as the audience considers at what cost Red Peter is able to achieve the ”cultural level of the average European.”
Although he is a respected veteran of the stage, McNamara’s overacting in this play is almost unbearable. The choice to emphasize every word and make the same exaggerated and prolonged movements over and over became tedious quickly. His lolling tongue and rolling eyes convey that Red Peter has not lost all of his wild ape qualities, but the over-exaggerated nature of the entire performance made the play very one-note. McNamara’s speech throughout made the story hard to follow, and a one-man play should be at the very least easy to follow.
Although this play is a miss for me, it is if nothing else memorable. McNamara’s contorted, grotesque facial expressions and overall crazed performance will probably haunt the audience for quite some time. McNamara nails the creepy, unsettling feeling a Kafka story should leave you with, and if you’re into that, Report to an Academy might be for you.
Report to an Academy runs through September 25 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.