It hasn’t been easy, but I think I’ve finally puzzled out how Ecco Porco came to be. Here’s my theory: While we were all distracted over Christmas by wars and terrorism, somehow—I’m not asking any questions—Santa’s sack ended up in the possession of Lee Breuer. Like any self-respecting downtown artist, Breuer spread it out on the floor of P.S. 122 and invited everybody over to play. The results, as you might expect, are murky, chaotic, and crowded, with little breathing room and even less structure. But you’ve never seen such an amazing assemblage of playthings. Anyone with a working adult mind who still likes to have his or her child-sense gratified at the theater will have a wonderful time, despite the murk, the chaos, and the length—which outdoes even Tony Kushner in its playfully word-drunk sprawl.
I’d better add, quickly, that Ecco Porco is emphatically not a children’s show, though many of Breuer’s techniques here, some of his colleagues, and his commitment to an art of free-flying fluidity, make it contiguous to his kiddie-department masterwork, Peter and Wendy (which reopens in February at the New Victory). But unless your children are ready for a four-hour examination of psychological torment, political turmoil, and philosophic questing, culminating in a representation of a tantric sex workshop, you’d better leave them home for Ecco Porco. That a piece so heavy in its topics should be so light in its spirit is the essence of Breuer’s approach; the jumble of elements is how he gets away with it.
The frame of the piece is a 12-step program—or rather, a group of actors putting on a play about a 12-step program—for troubled souls of all species. Though the nominal central character is a learned pig, represented as entirely human, Gonzo Porco Ph.D. (Frederick Neumann) soon finds his focus being stolen by the relationship of a dog and her master, Rose and John (puppets manipulated and given voice by various performers)—figures familiar from earlier Breuer pieces, chunks of text from which are embedded in Ecco Porco. Professor Porco’s intellectual searches, as extensive and erratic as his abusive paternalism at home, somehow involve Orson Welles, at lunch with Warren Beatty, pitching a movie on the KGB’s murder of the great Russian stage director Vsevolod Meyerhold. This leads to digressions within digressions, like Porco himself being tortured by a sort of familial KGB (including a sinister Comrade Dotcomskaya), or Welles narrating a climactic scene from his film of Kafka’s The Trial, staged in a demented manner that suggests the Marx Brothers headlining at the Cabaret Voltaire. Nor is this all, since the evening ends with Neumann becoming the differently demented Friedrich Nietzsche, whose philosophic autobiography, Ecce Homo, was the inspiration for Breuer’s title.
Sense can be located within Breuer’s maelstrom, but no reviewer has the time to parse it out or the space to explicate it. I hope whoever does the inevitable book-length academic study will have the wit to see the fun in the piece as well as its intellectual substance. Meantime, there’s little else for a critic to do—Breuer has even anticipated us there, by inventing his own mock-John Simon review, and then having the Simonish critic who delivers it (played by a woman) machine-gunned. While waiting for New York magazine’s review of this moment, we less machine-gun-worthy critics should praise the patience and daring of Breuer’s leading actors, and their breathtaking ability to shift feelings and switch voices in enormous blocks of text without their intensity ever flagging. It should be no surprise that, in addition to Neumann, I’m talking about Ruth Maleczech, Karen Kandel, Black-Eyed Susan, Terry O’Reilly, Honora Ferguson, and two fresh presences: Clove Galilee (Breuer and Maleczech’s daughter) and Maude Mitchell. With its mix of narration, stylized gesture, and multiple voicing, what they do here isn’t exactly acting: Call it magic literalism. That might be the best term for Breuer’s overall approach, too. The world he creates neither represents nor parallels ours; it’s interactive with us, like a funhouse mirror that reaches out to tap you on the shoulder.
More Kafka, not without a touch of Breuer’s demented-vaudeville style, is on view in The Castle, the opening production of the Manhattan Ensemble Theatre’s first full season. With its comfortable space, lush production values, and large-cast plays well stocked with familiar names, this company clearly plans to do things on a lavish scale. Which is fine with me—the works they’ve picked deserve the best—as long as they realize that lavishness isn’t an artistic goal but a way by which you reach one. Nobody knows exactly why K., the hero of Kafka’s novel, so desperately wants to get to the castle that employs him, but it’s a safe bet he doesn’t just want to admire the furnishings. And the audience, like K., is in the theater for more than material reasons.
This is more a warning than a complaint, since in fact The Castle offers a fair amount of the quality we call Kafkaesque. A translator and two adapters have worked over the script by Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and literary executor, who adapted the novel for the stage in 1953 (and who might have been given a program bio). Despite the many hands involved, the tone of the writing is fairly consistent and the storytelling lucid—Kafka smoothed down and simplified but still Kafka. Where matters get tonally wobbly is in Scott Schwartz’s direction, which sometimes evokes Kafka’s weird, nerve-racked atmosphere beautifully, but too often settles for something brasher and cruder that evokes musicals of the kind Schwartz is better known for directing. And whatever else The Castle may be, Bat Boy it isn’t.
Not that Kafka’s work lacks either humor or grotesquerie, only that its sense of them is both un-American and un-contemporary. One of the funniest of all modern novels, The Castle is full of vaudevillian temptations, to which Schwartz’s try-anything, post-MTV style easily falls prey. But Kafka was not a try-anything kind of guy: His comic moments are funnier, just as his scenes of lewd sex and crude violence are more shocking, because all three emerge out of the darkness of a barely industrialized Central Europe, and collide with the elaborate gravitas of imperial etiquette, with its ornate language and subtle class stratification.
K. is a surveyor, hired by “the castle,” who arrives in town out of nowhere to start his new job. You’d think that, as a skilled professional, he might know how to handle the ins and outs of the castle’s bureaucracy and its tense relations with the villagers who live in near feudal dependence on it. But from the moment of his ill-chosen arrival—on foot, in the middle of the night—he does everything wrong, alienates everyone important, and, through a mixture of innocence and arrogance, constantly upsets his own apple cart whenever fate isn’t upsetting it for him. His desire to have his existence recognized by a personal interview at the castle grows into a mania, till eventually—well, Kafka died leaving the work unfinished, but we can assume that K. never gets to the castle. Brod, adapting in a time that liked closure in its dramas, ended the play with K.’s funeral. The current version, more Kafkaesquely, fades out on him, though it steals a clue from Brod by interpolating, near the close, the parable “Before the Law,” spun off from The Trial but equally appropriate to this work.
William Atherton, still suavely handsome, captures a good deal of K.: his combative pride, his slightly childish eagerness, the easily discombobulated hauteur that makes K. comic. What he hasn’t found, and Schwartz apparently hasn’t steered him toward, is the deeper disquiet, the outsider’s terror of committing irrevocably wrong acts that eats away at K.—a feeling often linked to Kafka’s Jewishness, and to the anomalous position of Jews in Central Europe. But anyone who remembers Atherton’s early work knows that he doesn’t have to radiate ruling-class ease; the sense here is of a role not yet fully explored. Some of his supporting cast, notably Dan Ziskie and Sean McCourt, do more with less; others do less with less. The fascinating Catherine Curtin, as Frieda, the barmaid who adores K., ultimately falls into the same trap as Atherton, tending to work the personality rather than explore the role. Schwartz does better with visual than with acting values, making inventive use of Anna Louizos’s beautifully simple set, a square revolving platform flanked by rows of wintry trees. John Angier’s score, though, is another drawback—a ragbag of tidbits, like movie music composed by committee. Still, for all the show’s limitations, Kafka’s spirit, like his unreachable castle, is never long out of sight. He wouldn’t have been very happy in this world—but after all, Kafka was never happy anywhere else. “It’s enough,” he said, “that the arrows fit perfectly in the wounds they’ve made.”