Montreal-based actor Howard Rosenstein said he has taken on many characters throughout his 30 plus years in the industry, but none as challenging and rewarding as Franz Kafka’s Mr. Redpeter, a Gold Coast ape.
Based on Kafka’s short story titled A Report to an Academy, which was published in 1917 and adapted into a play called Kafka’s Ape by Montreal’s Infinitheatre’s artistic director Guy Sprung, the production examines the concept of “otherness.”
“Kafka is one of the pillars that writers of today stand on in order to do what they do. He was writing as a secular Jew who felt quite alienated… He felt very much alone in this world and tried to make contact with people,” Rosenstein explained.
“He was very curious about the otherness of what it was to be a Jew in Eastern Europe at the time. Having to adopt a last name so that his family could run a business, he felt very much apart from the community, from other human beings. He wrote I think, using animals as the central character to help him distance himself from the real thing, and at the same time allowing him to write about otherness and how others look at animals as objects to be eaten or taken advantage of, or used, or whatever. He felt the same thing was true for himself as a person and that people do that to each other.”
The play, which will run in Toronto as part of the SummerWorks Festival from August 7-17 at the Gladstone Hotel, is about an ape that is kidnapped by a multi-billion dollar military company and is faced with two options.
“Either he is going to be placed in a zoo in a cage, or he’s going to learn to adapt to this new human environment. He becomes more Roman than the Romans,” explained the 52-year-old actor.
Kafka’s original story has Mr. Redpeter, who speaks English, presenting himself to a panel of academics, but in Sprung’s adaptation, the ape is presenting to the shareholders of Greywater, a military company that employs him as a mercenary.
“He assimilates very well, but he is always going to be apart. But he learns how to gain a certain amount of freedom within the confines of what we call society,” Rosenstein said.
He said he was able to relate to Mr. Redpeter’s feeling of otherness.
“From the very beginning of my career, people would ask me what my name was, and I would tell them my name is Howard Rosenstein, and their face would sort of cringe and they’d go, ‘You’ve got to change that,’” he said.
While he acknowledged his fortune of being born and raised in a city with a large Jewish population that doesn’t suffer from too much anti-Semitism, he said he has experienced situations where there was “strangeness” because he happens to be Jewish.
“There is a discomfort that can sometimes accompany a random meeting between two people when someone perceives the other to be Jewish in the 21st century, in a western country. It’s bizarre, but still valid, unfortunately.”
Despite being able to identify with the character, he said it was the most difficult role he’s ever taken on.
“It’s an actor playing an ape playing a man. So there are several levels you can play with in the course of the story telling,” he said.
“This is also the most challenging role I’ve played to date, physically. We worked with physical coaches, movement coaches, watched hours of video on apes and chimpanzees… We can’t truly move like them because our physical structure is different… but we can give the illusion of it.”