I’ll refrain from using phrases like “monkey business” and “going bananas” in the opening of this review, but that’s not for any disdain for bad puns. It’s simply because the show doesn’t warrant that kind of enthusiasm.
Report to an Academy is a one-man show produced by SCENA Theatre, directed by Gabriele Jakobi and adapted from a short story by Franz Kafka.
Robert McNamara plays Red Peter, a self-reformed ape who’s become human in order to survive. The audience serves as members of the “academy,” listening to his account of having crossed from one species to another. Red Peter, shot at and caged by a hunting expedition in the Gold Coast, observed his captors’ mannerisms and mimics them until he himself is human and able to go free.
McNamara speaks the prose beautifully through a timeless, continental accent. For an ape or a man, the character is extraordinarily articulate, and he tells his story with energy and dedication.
Yet the physical trappings of Red Peter’s past as an ape—the facial tics, the occasional gibber, the gaping jaw and lolling tongue—seem at once too choreographed, and too indiscriminate, neither used to punctuate emotionally loaded moments nor organic enough to feel like the inner ape coming through. Especially when paired with such articulate speech, the physical dimensions of the character don’t sit quite right, ranging from implausible to uncomfortable. It feels less like watching an ape-turned-man and more like a man imitating degrees of insanity.
And maybe, just maybe, that’s the point?
As with much of Kafka’s work, Report to an Academy asks us to question the nature of confinement and survival. Does it matter if Red Peter truly was an ape? Philosophically, the tale of assimilation holds the same meaning regardless of whether the physical, inter-species transformation was intended to be literal or metaphorical. Whether he was a man held in captivity until he went mad or an ape held in captivity until he turned man, the sentiment behind it is the same: We do what we must to continue existing—even if it turns us into something we don’t want to be.
Or maybe I’m being too generous with this interpretation.
There’s so much room for interpretation in any of Kafka’s work, it’s difficult to parse whether or not this choice—to suggest madness in addition to/instead of literal apehood—was intentional. Other stage adaptations of Kafka’s Report have also expressed the duality of natures (human, non-human) within one being, using the moments of greatest stress or emotion to retreat back into bestial habits. Yet SCENA’s production seems to channel those mannerisms indiscriminately, keeping the emotional pitch of Report to an Academy decidedly one-level. (A melodramatic score and several prolonged silences, try as they might, do not remedy the situation.)
Report to an Academy
by Gabriele Jakobi
at Caos on F
923 F Street NW
Washington, DC 20001
Details and tickets
Any solo performer merits commendation for his ability to sustain the attention of an audience, by himself, for 60 minutes. Especially so when the text he’s working with is as nuanced and stylistically specific as Kafka’s. But at the end of the day, Report to an Academy is just that—a report. The staging of this isn’t enough to truly dramatize the narrative, but tries too hard to do so. Without the anchor of immediate conflict, we are indeed witnessing a man, bug-eyed and slop-tongued, simply describing something that may or may not have happened.