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Actor captures ‘otherness’ in Kafka’s Ape

Tags: Arts
Actor Howard Rosenstein, left, and director Guy Sprung are bringing Kafka’s Ape to Infinitheatre. [Heather Solomon photo]

Apes have never before absorbed so much of Howard Rosenstein’s time, especially since he is studying to become one.

The transformation will take place nightly Jan. 29 to Feb. 19 at Infinitheatre’s Bain St. Michel performance space, 5300 St. Dominique St.

When Infinitheatre’s artistic director, Guy Sprung, offered him the role in Kafka’s Ape, Rosenstein’s first question was, “Do I have to wear an ape suit?” He will not.

The characterization will be delivered through body language with a smattering of vocalizations taught by a behavioural scientist familiar with simian communication, as well as perfect English that makes this humanized ape more civilized than his role models.

The one-man show is about a Gold Coast ape named Redpeter who opts to become as human as possible to avoid his captors’ threat to cage him in a zoo.

“The play is from a monologue that Franz Kafka wrote just past the turn of the 20th century,” says director Sprung. “It was called A Report to an Academy, about an ape that tells a group of scholars how he learned from the ship’s crew [that takes him out of Africa] how to spit, smoke and drink.

“In the original, the ape becomes a celebrity on the variety stage, carted around because of his status of being able to speak human language, but I’ve adapted the story and made him into a mercenary soldier, adept at killing other human beings for financial gain, so Kafka’s irony is extended a little bit further.”

The military has used dolphins to carry bombs, so Sprung’s concept of involving apes in the carnage of war is not farfetched. Instead of an academic panel, Redpeter is presenting his background to shareholders of a corporation that operates a privatized army employed to protect and advance its interests.

Working for the Man to kill other men makes him “more animal than he ever was as an ape, and in becoming a human being, he has lost a great deal,” says Sprung, who hopes the play will prompt the audience to realize what people in our warmongering world have become.

“In his pushing of the ape into an otherness, Kafka was writing about antisemitism. He was a secular Jew who felt his Jewishness in the sense he was made to feel different. Kafka wrote about his own alienation,” says Rosenstein.

“I think as 21st-century people, we all have our own sense of alienation in modern society, so it will resonate for anyone who comes to see the show.”

Rosenstein has to memorize 70 minutes of text, but he is doing so in conjunction with the physical portrayal of his character. He is in top form for the role, able, says Sprung, to “scamper across the chairs like the best of the great apes.”

“I’m going to the gym and stretching. It’s a wonderful challenge to be able to do this,” says the actor.

“It’s my first one-man show. There’s a lot of pressure, but it helps me focus.”

Rosenstein is an Infinitheatre favourite, recognized for his roles in past productions such as Ars Poetica and The Leisure Society. He portrayed Marco in the Segal Centre’s A View from the Bridge and is a champion of comic book enthusiasts, producing a web series with live actors called Heroes of the North.

“Howard is extremely courageous,” says Sprung. “He doesn’t take anything at half measure, so by committing to the project he’s ready to go on an extraordinarily risky journey.”

Sprung was at ease translating and adapting Kafka’s story, having studied German at McGill University.

Before he settled permanently in Montreal in 1965, Ottawa-born Sprung was “an army brat. My dad was in the army so we grew up everywhere, which is probably why the whole mercenary thing is of interest to me.”

Presenting Kafka is part of Infinitheatre’s vision, says Sprung. “We have and will continue to do some adaptations of classics when we think it’s relevant to our bigger mandate, which is to reflect Montreal to itself onstage.”

Due to its minimal technical requirements and small cast, Sprung and Rosenstein plan to make theatrical waves beyond Montreal by taking the show on tour. For tickets to Kafka’s Ape, call 514-987-1774, ext. 104.

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