Franz Kafka, who died in 1924, one month shy of his 41st birthday, missed most of the major horrors of the 20th century. And the one world war he lived through didn’t interest him much. On August 2, 1914, he wrote in his diary, “Germany has declared war on Russia. Swimming in the afternoon.”
Yet with his singular nightmare visions, this German-speaking Jewish writer has become the bard of modern dystopia. “Kafkaesque” has been used to describe life under dictatorships everywhere from Soviet Russia to Latin America and, more recently, police brutality in the United States. “In some sad ways, Kafka was kind of a fortuneteller,” says Hutch Pimentel, who’s cocurating First Floor Theater’s Kafkapalooza, a weeklong festival kicking off August 14 at the storefront theater Collaboraction in Wicker Park. “You see that in government where we’re arresting people before a crime is committed.”
Founded by a group of University of Chicago graduates in 2012, First Floor has attracted some of Chicago’s hottest playwrights—including Brett Neveu and Ike Holter—for this series of eight original works, a coup for the fledging company.
For Holter, civic unrest is familiar territory. At 30, the Roscoe Village resident is best known for politically charged, word-drunk dramas, such as his 2012 breakthrough work Hit the Wall, about the 1969 Stonewall uprising, and 2014’s Exit Strategy, which chronicles the demise of a Chicago public school. Though he’s reluctant to give plot details, Holter says his festival piece follows the general outline of Kafka’s classic The Metamorphosis, but is set in present-day Chicago. “Kafka’s characters are always up against huge, insurmountable situations, and it beats them from the inside,” says Holter, who avoids the big-budget man-changes-to-cockroach hullabaloo by, well, not showing it. (Instead, he uses onstage gossip to tell the tale of the transformation.) “A lot of my shows are about people who are on the brink of being torn apart by circumstance. I’m fascinated by when people choose to fight back, which is the opposite of what Kafka shows.”
Fellow playwright Brett Neveu also has a great affinity for Kafka’s writing. Known for his gritty Midwest realism and tough-talking dramas, such as The Opponent and Red Bud, Neveu takes his cue from Kafka’s formal, fragmented prose. “The sort of stilted language that leaves a lot open to interpretation speaks to me,” says the Evanston resident. “The answers are there, but you don’t exactly know what you’ve seen.” Neveu is adapting Kafka’s short story “Unhappiness,” a characteristically deadpan ghost tale that’s suffused with longing. Like Holter, Neveu, 45, uses Chicago as inspiration—specifically, in the setting: a crowded el train in the thick of a bleak winter, where a guy is so depressed that he befriends a ghost. It’s a notion that may resonate with those who suffered through last year’s polar vortex.
Neveu believes that the key to Kafka’s enduring importance lies in his commitment to telling the stories of those most vulnerable. “It’s always the marginalized who are affected by people in power and who are broken as a result,” he says. “I think that speaks to the human story. ”
GO Kafkapalooza runs August 14 to 22 at Collaboraction, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave. $15 firstfloortheater.com