The Glorious Bomb Squad (Chicago) has dropped a slow detonating revision of Franz Kafka’s short story, The Hunger Artist, on this year’s Cincinnati Fringe. The bare bones of Kafka’s narrative are there, following a starvation artist’s declining fortune as a primary public attraction to his latter days as a sideshow act in a traveling circus. However, the script by Connor Shioshita Pickett, who plays the title character in this production, and director Jordan Matthew Walsh, give the story a modern slant and introduce a few minor subplots that add a little more meat to the original’s meager frame.
Pickett, who looks very much like he has lived on air to train for the role, brings a great hollowed intensity to the part and shades his lines with a surprising mix of gravitas and wit. It’s a performance that grows stronger as the character grows weaker.
Other fine performances come from Michael Rawls, who plays the shady manager in the first half of the show, and Stephanie Corkery who shines in the male role of the circus proprietor. An additional subplot involving a romance between a trapeze artist (Meghan O’Neill) and a wrestler (Andrew Perez) lends some welcome variety and poetic impact in the second act, especially when the former decides to leave the ground forever and live only in the swings and platforms high above the circus floor.
The stage at the Art Academy is appropriately minimal, consisting of a black curtain, a trio of wooden cubes and a few lights. Yet the company does a smart job of filling the quick succession of scenes with some inventively retro multi-media provided by an old overhead projector that casts the show’s backdrops, titles and even the cage that houses the starving artist as he performs his solitary, sedentary act. Andrew Sours’ sound design keeps the energy higher than expected with some well-chosen jams that bridge the scene changes.
This is a haunting show that never drags, and it knows where to lift without needing to make light of its main character. Rather than the mainstream reliance on spectacle and easy emotions, there’s a lean but constant imagination here in both substance and style. And that’s feast enough for some of us.
Nicholas Korn is a playwright whose work has been produced in New York City, Chicago and Cincinnati. His stage comedy, Delirium’s Daughters, recently played Off-Off Broadway at New York’s Theatre Row Studio Theatre.