In 1919, German-Bohemian writer Franz Kafka wrote a 47-page letter to his father. It was never delivered.
Now, in 2021, James Rutherford and Michael Guagno have created a one-man cinematic show from the text of Kafka's letter. Presented by M-34, Franz Kafka's Letter To My Father features Guagno as Kafka reading the letter aloud, surrounded by cameras and boxes. Directed by James Rutherford, it's appropriately Kafkaesque--existential, nightmarish, ambivalent, and oddly compelling.
In an attempt to approach live theatre, Guagno has six different camera angles set up, several of which he adjusts throughout. Viewers can choose one perspective, switch it up throughout the show, or watch all six at once for a strange kaleidoscopic viewing experience. I kept them all open simultaneously (blame it on FOMO), and found it mesmerizing and intimate to see the performer from so many angles: straight on, overhead, from under the desk, from the side.
Of course, Guagno's intense closeness--not only physical closeness to the camera, but emotional closeness to the text and to the childhood memories Kafka is reliving--helps with that intimacy. In the letter to his father, Kafka lays bare his relationships, his anxiety, his crippling need for approval and stability, and even his own physicality. Guagno translates this anxiety and dread perfectly. At times, the nightmare of his past becomes so inhibiting that he momentarily loses the power of speech. It's terrifically disturbing.
As Kafka relates to us, his relationship with his father has not been sunshine and rainbows. In fact, despite the writer's insistence that his father is an inherently good and loving person, the character of his father emerges through the letter as demanding, hypocritical, tyrannical, and verbally abusive. Episodes from Kafka's childhood still haunt him, and thanks to the production team's eerie aesthetic, Guagno's intense emotionality, and the power of Kafka's words, they now can now haunt us as well.
As a result of his traumatic childhood and inability to connect with his father, Kafka appears to be at an impasse. He can't seem to get married and settle down (though he views parenthood as humanity's highest possible achievement), his health is compromised (Kafka would die of tuberculosis only five years later), and all his other aspirations seem to have stagnated as well.
The circular, inconclusive nature of the production reinforces this stagnation. Guagno sits at a desk in a dimly lit room, surrounded by boxes I can only imagine are full of other non-delivered letters, half-finished manuscripts, and documentations of incidents with his father. He starts the show in half-dress, bending over a massive pile of scattered papers, meticulously arranging them in order.
At the end of the show, Guagno throws the 40+ pages of his letter into a box and methodically dumps the contents on the ground. Then he undresses, turns off the light, and beds down amid his chaotic, fragmentary world. There's a sense that if we just stay online long enough, the whole thing will repeat itself. And who knows how many times Kafka reread the letter, replayed the memories, second-guessed the accusations, before finally deciding that he couldn't send it after all. The letter remained undelivered, perpetually in incubation.
'Franz Kafka's Letter To My Father' runs February 19 through March 28. For tickets and more information, visit: