The premise sounded dubious, and more than a little like thinly-veiled propaganda: an ape that was in the process of transitioning to a human would deliver the keynote address to the shareholders of Graywater Corporation, a private military corporation. But this 70-minute piece of theatre (dir. Guy Sprung, put on by Infinithéâtre), largely based on Kafka's "A Report to an Academy", turned out to be a brilliant gem in the Toronto SummerWorks Festival, with Howard Rosenstein as Redpeter the ape and Alexandra Montgagnese as his chimpanzee wife, Mrs. Redpeter, smashing in their roles.
The way the Gladstone was set up for Kafka's "Ape" certainly lent itself to a shareholders' meeting atmosphere, with tables clustered near the front and rows of chairs behind. Behind the podium were two TV screens that played little snippets of Graywater's more polished aspects, glorifying the organization and barely disguised fact that it was little more than a group of modern day mercenaries. The most unsettling example was when the words "Hard work and strict obedience will make you free" appeared on screen as Graywater's business philosophy, words that Redpeter said were invisibly tattooed on his arm and translated into "Arbeit macht frei".
This was not going to be an ordinary shareholder meeting.
From the time Redpeter and his missus swung into plain view, each captivated the audience throughout. Redpeter, dressed in a tuxedo that couldn't hide how much physically he still was an ape, bristled with barely-contained fury as he talked about his first days of captivity at Graywater's hands, while Mrs. Redpeter, wearing an ill-fitting yellow dress and comically bad blond wig, whimpered and chirped from the sides while she knocked back guzzles from her flask.
As Redpeter spoke — in a lovely Southern accent, and in a speech full of eloquence and sophistication — his ape personality kept cracking through at the seams unconsciously, and it took him several seconds before he remembered to rein it in. The only way for him to escape, he kept telling us, was to repress his apeness and take on a nature more fitting to "oo-mans", even if this meant weeks of practicing to finally be able to drink whiskey without retching, and learning which end of a lit cigar goes in his mouth.
Is Redpeter a case of evolving into a higher life form? Perhaps, but that's presupposing that Graywater is both a higher way of living, and one worth aspiring to above all others. Listening to Redpeter spit out words about what it was like in a barred crate on that ship, the answer seems more definitively no, Graywater isn't nirvana. Kafka tells us, by expounding on themes of alienation, isolation, confinement, cunning and disillusionment, that to enact change and escape/attain freedom, we have to go at it from the inner core. Redpeter's grasped a concept that so many of us seem to have trouble with, and it's a little sombre that an ape, a seemingly lower form of life than humans, gets this.
Rosenstein does a marvellous job in Kafka's "Ape", delivering the physicality and primitive nature of a primate while struggling to slide into humanhood. It's a performance that's nothing short of startling, and what really brings Kafka's text to life. As Mrs. Redpeter, Montgagnese also keeps entirely in character, even though her role is a lesser one. It's the kind of unexpected theatre that makes the art form worth going to see, and is a highlight on the SummerWorks Festival menu.