The King of Bohemia: The Life and Times of Franz Kafka
nytheatre.com review by Heather Lee Rogers
July 17, 2010
The King of Bohemia by Jeff Boles, currently running at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, is about the friendship between Max Brod and Franz Kafka. The play is arranged in a collage of scenes from the two writers' lives that overlap and intersect, sometimes out of sequence. According to the play, Brod and Kafka met in school at a time when Brod was already an established writer. Once they become friends, Kafka admits that he's secretly a writer himself. When Kafka shares his work, Brod is at first so taken aback with jealous admiration that he has no words to describe it. Brod then becomes a champion of Kafka's work and aids him in getting published. Soon they are working together, each taking turns writing while the other dictates as they pitch ideas to each other. During this time Brod is having difficulties with his wife (who is only impressed with best-sellers) and Kafka is living at home with his father (who doesn't approve of his writing or his vegetarian diet). Kafka is also struggling with tuberculosis and eventually dies, leaving instructions that upon his death Max Brod should burn all of his unpublished writing.
According to the MITF show listing, the play is about Brod's decision whether or not to comply with that posthumous directive. However, although the play jumps around in time, the scene when this request comes up is at the end of the play. So while the play may have been written (and understood by its actors) to be about that decision, it is not revealed to the audience until the end, and therefore didn't help me connect the scenes of the play with any greater meaning. I wish the play had started there and let us see the rest in flashback if that was the driving plot point. Also, in the structure of the play, we get scenes from both Brod's and Kafka's perspective. I think the play would have been stronger if it stuck with Brod's perspective, and really laid it out as his story about Kafka.
The energy of the play is fantastic. Much of the play is following Kafka and Brod through classrooms, offices, bars, and cafes in Prague. They are joined by their boisterous Bohemian friends: Jaroslav Hasek, an anarchist-journalist, and Oscar Polla, an architect. Lit up with a passion for ideas, they drink, trash what they don't like, and try to define the future of their artistic fields. Under the bold direction of Mike Hayhurst, scene changes explode from one place and time to another and overlap on stage, which I really enjoyed. I also loved the ludicrous mock trial scene, perhaps a nightmare of Kafka's, reminiscent of his novel The Trial.
Overall, being a fan of Kafka and the city of Prague, I found plenty to enjoy in this play. I think the idea of the play is really interesting and Boles is onto something with great potential. I hope that the play, after its festival run, gets developed a little further with a stronger, more direct voice in the writing and arrangement of the scenes (to match the bold directing choices). But in its present state, it is still a fun show about some interesting people and worth checking out. Long live Bohemia!