The most impressive piece of realist theatre I’ve ever attended took place in a small Berlin basement-theatre. It was just me, three or four other spectators, and an ape literally hitting the roof. The piece was a mono-dramatic adaptation of Kafka’s short story “A Report to an Academy” (Ein Bericht für eine Akademie, 1917). The report is given by an ape trained to be human whose name is “Red Peter” (Rotpeter).
So a poster that showed a man masked as a monkey naturally caught my eye. It announces [a (short) run of Red Peter in Daehangno later this month.
In Korea, the adapted play has been a veritable evergreen, under the title Red Peter’s Confession (빨간 피터의 고백). With regard to historical pedigree, it was one of the most frequently performed “German plays” (without being neither, even!) in Korea in the 20th century. My sources count ten productions in total between 1923 and 1995. The most notorious actor playing the humanized ape was Chu Song-ung (추송웅, 1941–85) who filled the 13th-Street-Warehouse Theatre (삼일로창고극장) in Myeongdong in the late 1970s and early 80s. It is said that he had worked at a zoo and studied the chimpanzees’ behaviour there to prepare his interpretation of Rotpeter – so much for method acting! Since 1977, he performed the piece 482 times for 152,000 spectators until his untimely death in 1985. (I got this information from poet Choe Yun-hui’s 최윤희 impressive blog, where you can also find the Korean translation of the original story and Chu’s adaptation.) Later, his son directed a movie adaptation of his piece.
In the mid–90s, Gwon Hyeok-pung (권혁풍, *1955) stepped into the large shoes of Chu and became Red Peter, at the Theater Café (카페 떼아뜨르) in Daehangno. (Thanks to Hyunjung Lee for sharing her memories! Here is a review from the JoongAng Daily, 1996) Anyone who puts on the ape-face will probably be measured by Chu Song-ung’s landmark performance.
In an interesting news article on “Monodrama Yesterday and Today” (“Red Peter Chu Song-ung might be gone, but the actors and their blazing madness live on”) from 2005, the author Im In-taek (임인택) also ponders why monodrama tends to be successful in Korea. Is it an interest in famous star actors rather than the plays content? Some critics or scholars believe that Korean audiences prefer narration over concrete dramatic depiction – but then again, it would be hard to argue that the storytelling art pansori is more popular than its staged version changgeuk… Also, the matter of “realistic” acting versus unmediated narration, the various stage-personae a performer adopts, his/her “semiotic” and “phenomenal” body – monodrama offers a focused perspective on what goes on when someone “acts” in front of others!
Meanwhile, monodrama continues to be successful in Korea and produces evergreens, such as The Woman Who Smokes Cigarettes (담배 피우는 여자), adapted from a novel by Kim Hyeong-gyeong (김형경) and performed by Son Suk (손숙) in the 90s (I saw it a few years ago at Sanullim Theatre 산울림소극장), or The Fairy in the Wall (벽 속의 요정) by Japanese little-theatre writer Fukuda Yoshiyuki (福田善之) and performed by (madang nori-queen) Kim Seong-nyeo again and again during the last 10 years (see a 2004 article on the “32 Faces of Kim Seong-nyeo”). Recently, I am My Own Wife (나는 나의 아내다) by Dough Wright, performed as a double-cast by Nam Myeong-ryeol (남명렬) and Ji Hyeon-jun (지현준) was counted among the best-three performances of 2013.
The role of the ape in this year’s production of Red Peter is taken by Ju Ho-seong (주호성, *1948). I’m not sure if there is any continuity to Chu Song-ung’s interpretation, but Ju studied film and theatre at Chungang University like Chu. After working as a dubbing actor, he made his stage debut in 1984 and might well have known his predecessor. In any case, another promotion poster blurbs some quotes about (seemingly) successful performances in China.
The entrance fee of the new Red Peter is quite expensive (40,000 KRW), but anyone born in a year of the monkey (2016, 2004, 1992, 1980, 1968, 1956, 1944…) can get a steep reduction to only 15,000 KRW (원숭이띠 특별할인)! But it might also be worth the money for all of us dogs, dragons, tigers, and sheeps…
Whoever needs a more detailed preview of the adapted story: The original work by Kafka (in German) is provided online at Project Gutenberg and several English translations are available, one by Ian Johnston of Vancouver Island University, another by Philip Boehm, and another by Mauro Nervi. A Korean translation of Kafka’s story (어느 학술원에 드리는 보고) and a monodrama script (transl. by Choe Yeong-il 최영일) is available, too, on Choe Yun-hui’s blog).
PS: Another take on the confessions of an ape I found by chance: Just last year, at an exhibition on “Ape Culture” at the House of World Cultures in Berlin, Coco Fusco presented “Observations of Predation in Humans: A Lecture by Dr. Zira, Animal Psychologist”. If you didn’t know: Dr. Zira is the female lead from the original Planet of the Apes and in Fusco’s piece she returns “after twenty years of research in seclusion … to present her assessment of the special characteristics of human aggression in the twenty-first century.” (see an interview with Coco Fusco at art21)
– 17 March 2016 (木)
- 빨간 피터, 원작: 프란츠 카프카, 연기, 개편: 주호성, 각색: 김태수, 예그린 씨어터, 2016년 3월 23일 ~ 4월 3일 (화~금: 오후 8시, 토, 일: 오후 3시, 월: 쉼), 일반입장료: 40,000원, 원숭이띠 특별할인: 15,000원, 문의: 0505–894–0202, Interpark.
- Red Peter, original by Franz Kafka, actor and editor: Ju Ho-seong, dramatization by Kim Tae-su, Yegreen Theatre, 2016–03–23 ~ 04–03 (Tue–Fri: 8pm, Sat, Sun: 3pm, Mon: no performance), general admission: 40,000 KRW, “year-of-the-ape-reduction”: 15,000 KRW, inquiries: 0505–894–0202, Interpark.
(all images are promotional material for the upcoming production of Red Peter 빨간 피터, with Ju Ho-seong 주호성 as the lead, produced by the theatre, movie, publication management company Lawon 라원문화, 2015)