After you watch Derek Goldman’s startling adaptation of the Franz Kafka short story “Metamorphosis”, you may realize that you are turning into a cockroach. Gregor Samsa (John Milosich) was not the first person to do so, and it is happening all the time now.
One day, you are a traveling salesman with a big future, comfortably supporting yourself, your parents (Steve Beall and Annie Houston) and your sister (Catalina Lavalle), satisfying your employer, the head clerk (Frank Britton), who is also your landlord, and the next morning you find yourself “changed…into an unclean animal” as Kafka’s original German-language text had it. You have a hard shell and a half-dozen writhing, squirming superfluous legs, and what’s more your room has tilted so that it is now at sixty degrees. Gravity pulls you toward a window in the wall, and the only way you can leave the room through the door is to anchor yourself on a large post, and pull yourself laboriously uphill. You, who had been a hero to your family, are now a useless bug. Metamorphosis is the long downward spiral we see in Death of a Salesman, compressed to a single day and expressed in a physical metaphor.
As Samsa was turning into a cockroach, Franz Kafka (Clark Young) was turning into…a dead man. Assistant Director Hunter Styles’ program notes state it plainly: Kafka “spent his own life dying.” We see it in Goldman’s text. He has Kafka alternate passages from Metamorphosis with portions of his own letters to his beloved Felice, in which he observes, not always clinically, the ulcers, pustules and hemorrhages erupting on and in his body. And in metamorphosing from Metamorphosis to Kafka’s own agonized self-examination and back again, Goldman makes us get it: Metamorphosis is about love and failure, and the failure of love.
The great athlete loses his strength and skill; the breadwinner loses his job; the great wit and bon vivant becomes bitter and depressed; the beloved spouse becomes demented; and all turn into cockroaches. Do we love them still? Arthur Miller, with his wonderful “attention must be paid” speech, says “sometimes” but Kafka clearly says “no”. Gregor’s family strips his room of furniture and turns it into a garbage pit. Periodically his sister throws scraps of food on his floor for him (the food being discarded pages of Kafka manuscripts). His family is disgusted at the sight and sound (more on this later) of him, and when he dies it is to their palpable relief. In concert with this, you may remember that Kafka and Felice broke up for good the same year Kafka was diagnosed with tuberculosis.
Goldman has written an extraordinary adaptation, unusual even by the standards of Synetic Theater, which stages it. The Samsa family goes about their daily activities on a second-floor landing. A door in the floor, made of screen and wood, separates them from Gregor’s crazily-slanted room. Gregor, thrashing and tearing, emerges from inside his bed as though from a cocoon, and, insectoid jaws slavering inarticulately, screams and whimpers as he tries to orient himself. The nightmare has begun.
This is not a traditional Synetic since it does not principally convey its meaning through complex choreography. (Synetic choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili describes what she does for Kafka’s Metamorphoses as “Stage Movement.”) But there is no doubt that what Milosich does with his body and with the inarticulate sounds that the transformed Gregor is able to make carry the narrative weight of this show. Milosich’s movements capture horror, fear, sorrow, yearning and regret, and make this man-sized insect fully human to us.
The other characters provide, by and large, the necessary ballast. Goldman elects principally to use serial monologues, rather than dialogue, to move the narrative along, and assigns the principal work to Young as Kafka. Kafka gives voice to Gregor’s feelings as well as his own (while the program identifies Young as “Kafka”, a Synetic press release identifies him as “Gregor Samsa’s brain” and Milosich as “Gregor Samsa’s body”) and, while never losing the dispassionate resignation that is Kafka’s literary voice manages to make them important. In this he is assisted by the operatic Caitlan Cassidy, who plays Felice not only as Kafka’s beloved but as the beloved of Gregor as well. Cassidy sings her part in a voice so pure, powerful, and lovely that it could surely bring the dead back to life, and Gregor’s yearning for her – she flutters near him, and disappears – breaks our hearts.
Of the remaining cast, Houston and Britton both do excellent work, and Charlotte Akin is delightful in a brief turn as a charwoman who is too case-hardened – or compassionate – to be bothered by Gregor. (“My little dung beetle,” she calls him.)
Goldman, who directed Theater J’s excellent production of In Darfur, more or less simultaneously with his production here, moves his actors around crisply and with dispatch. His successful effort here is abetted by fine work on lights, by multiple Helen Hayes laureate Colin K. Bills and superb costumes (as well as the wild set) by Natsu Onoda Power.
But I have saved the best for last. James Bigbee Garver’s sound design is among the best I have ever heard, any theater, any place, any time. From the chitinous sounds which haunt the opening moments (the rest of the cast has infested the floorboards beneath Gregor’s room) to the gurgling, slurping sounds Gregor makes when he’s trying to speak to the sound of Gregor helplessly regurgitating and then compulsively reabsorbing, Garver has created a soundscape of insectoid horror. Wonderful original music by the wonderfully reliable Konstantine Lorkipanidze is the perfect compliment.
Administrative note: Assistant Director Styles is a colleague of mine on the staff of DC Theatre Scene. This has not affected the objectivity of my review.
Adapted by Derek Goldman from Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka
Directed by Derek Goldman
Produced by Synetic Theater
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Kafka’s Metamorphosis plays through May 22, 2010.