By Niclas Ericsson
What does one do when a close family member one day turns into a man-sized insect? Invite him to join you for dinner and serve him some old cheese carvings? Or do you gradually turn into a fascist asking for his extermination? Then again, you could simply pretend like nothing has happened.
Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka’s iconic novella from 1915, is a cruel and absurd drama about the incomprehensible and dark side of the seemingly mundane everyday life. It has been adapted to other forms numerous times – opera, graphic novel, dance, theater.
The Aurora Theater Company is now presenting an apt stage adaption of Metamorphosis done by by David Farr and Gísli Örn Gardarsson and skillfully directed by Mark Jackson. It’s worth seeking out.
Gregor Samsa, the main character of the play and a traveling salesman, is late for work one day. Gregor still lives with his parents and his sister. As they knock on his door to inquire what has happened, they find him transformed into a giant, insect-like creature.
The panic and disarray gets worse when a colleague of Gregor Samsa’s shows up to ask his whereabouts, casually accusing him of embezzlement at the same time.
“I need you to stand up for me, they think so poorly of us traveling salesmen,” says the desperate man/insect to his bewildered colleague in an attempt to save his job. He fails, needless to say.
Grete Samsa, sister of Gregor, is the only family member to muster up some sympathy and who has the courage to actually face his insect-like incarnation. The mother, sickly and high-strung, is unable to deal with the new reality. The father of the family doesn’t even seem to try and denies any kinship with the insect.
Kafka’s piece double-exposes the trivialities of everyday life against a monstrous backdrop, so that the reactions of Gregor’s family soon seem more grotesque than his actual transformation.
Can things get more absurdly sinister? Oh, certainly — in the world of Franz Kafka. Fisher, a possible tenant, comes to inspect a room the Samsas want to rent out. He is an eligible bachelor and a colleague of Grete Samsa’s at the department store where she has found a position.
The young man, of a “new breed,” soon turns out to be a Hitlerian household tyrant with political ambitions far beyond domestic life. His impact on the Samsa family is the climax of the play, swiftly carrying events towards their ultimate disaster.
The role of Fisher is played with technical mastery by Patrick Jones, who sucks out every dark, farcical, nuance of this highly unpleasant species. In fact the whole ensemble performs with technical finesse, in a stylized manner as to resemble terrifying human marionettes, askew and broken.
Although Gregor Samsa is the epicenter of the piece — and skillfully played by Alexander Crowther, adding both acrobatic genius and vulnerability to the part — it is the two female characters who stand out. Partly because their struggle to accept and adapt to the family disaster — and their total failure in doing so — is heart-tearing as such, partly thanks to the vibrant acting of Megan Trout (the sister) and Madeline H.D. Brown (the mother). As for the father, his character comes off as rather square — from the first moment he does not accept the insect as his son and there is little development of the character over the course of events. The acting of Allen McKelvey does little to make the role go beyond this.
There are a number of challenges staging this piece. We all know the world of Kafka. His dark poetic vision of a world of total alienation and incomprehensible cruelty is part of the modern cultural heritage. The original is a masterpiece, a seminal work that has inspired generations of artist, writers and filmmakers.
How can a staging of the Metamorphosis live up to the original? The answer in this case is that it can’t really. The performance does not bring full justice to the novella — and in fact departs considerably from the original. But this turns out to be a small issue as the performance manages to establish itself as a piece of art in its own right. It brings clarity and simplification to the enigmatic story, without slipping into the banal or one-dimensional. Much is lost — but much is also gained.
Yet another challenge is how to balance the farce with the tragedy. A reader of Kafka’s novella is free to make his own interpretation — some may see his disturbing images as wonderfully comical, others less so. Staging the piece, these choices have to be made by the director or the actor. Can slapstick and weltschmerz ever be brought to interact on stage the way they do in Kafka’s written original? Maybe, but it would take a genius to achieve that. At the Aurora the farce is distinctly played out, not at the expense of the depth of the story, but it sets the tone and opens the story up to the spectators. It turns the Metamorphosis into an accessible introduction to the world of Kafka.
Last, but not least, there is the challenge of how to realize the transformation of Gregor Samsa to an insect on stage. Director Mark Jackson has chosen to rely on body language and acting alone, a choice that leaves the actor Alexander Crowther with a difficult task. One may have different opinions of how well this works, and whether the impact on the audience is strong enough. Believing that someone is an insect, when what you see in front of you is actually a man, takes quite a bit of imagination.
But one may also argue that Jackson’s choice brings attention to the symbolic quality of the piece and to its metaphors. Is it really about being transformed into an insect? Or is it about how we relate — or fail to relate — to anybody who is considered different? Is the play perhaps about being a communist, disabled, Jewish or gay?
Genocides typically include hateful rhetorical patterns where “the others” are likened to insects or filthy animals. In Nazi Germany, Jews were portrayed as rats in propaganda films and the popular press. In Rwanda, before the genocide of 1994, the Tutsi were being referred to as cockroaches on the radio, in the press – even in pop songs.
Before the play comes to an end family members are openly discussing extermination — of a next of kin. So is Gregor Samsa actually an insect? Or is he just called by that name to point out his “otherness”?
Franz Kafka was, of course, a Jew and his novella can be seen as a premonition of the evil times that were awaiting Europe under the rise of Nazism and fascism in the 1930’s. He wrote his play in 1915. For whoever decides to go and see Metamorphosis at the Aurora Theater — and it is well worth seeing — it may be illuminating to know that 1915 was also the year when massacres and deportations in the Ottoman empire led to the deaths of over one million Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks. It is generally considered the first genocide. Now if that doesn’t bug you, what will?
Metamorphosis runs until July 17 at the Aurora Theater Company at 2801 Addison Street in Berkeley. You can buy tickets here.