Editor’s note – DCTS writer Hunter Styles landed the assistant director gig for Synetic Theater’s Metamorphosis, working with director Derek Goldman, who, at the same time, had a second production in rehearsal, In Darfur at Theater J. While Hunter knew he was about to be a very busy guy, he gamely offered to take notes and bring us back an inside view of this most unique Synetic Theater production.
It was bound to happen. A man with a good soul, an unquiet mind, and a perfectly proportional body – two arms, two legs, two eyes, two ears – goes to sleep… dreams… and wakes up a monstrous insect. The most natural, awful thing in the world.
True to form (for a Kafka story), the young salesman Gregor Samsa’s first real concern isn’t his frightening new body – it’s that he’s running late for work. But in finding a way to tell Gregor’s story onstage, the transformation from man to insect wasn’t such a foregone conclusion. It happened in an instant to Gregor, but for Synetic Theater and a large team of artists, led by writer and director Derek Goldman, it took a few painstaking months to work out all the bugs. So to speak.
“I think the scary part of a piece like this is how many parallel ambitions there are,” Derek said recently. “There’s the physical vocabulary, and then there’s the script, which was already an abstracted way of adapting this story. There was very little sense of ‘Here are the rules and we’re sticking with them.'”
Synetic’s brawny, vivid stories about the creation and destruction of the human body are entirely unique – since their founding in 2001, the company has been mixing dance, mime, and martial arts into sleek, muscular chunks of theater that charge through space with catch-your-breath elegance and force. Physical prowess, however, couldn’t be more lacking in Franz Kafka. Born and raised in Prague in the late nineteenth century, the author lived a sickly, interior life fraught with anxiety until, at age 40, he perished from tuberculosis.
At first it seemed odd to me that Synetic would be hosting this project – a theatrical retelling of Kafka’s famous novella blended, in unexpected ways, with some biography of the author himself. Synetic and Kafka seemed unlikely lovers, sort of like when the young quarterback starts hanging out with the quiet bookworm after school. What, exactly, is the shared attraction?
“Some of it comes out of a really positive experience on a first production with Synetic,” Derek said, referring to his adaptation of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata for the company last season. “That felt like it employed aspects of the Synetic style, but it also came from a more text-centered approach.” Derek reminded me that, while we may think of Synetic in terms of the body and Franz Kafka in terms of the brain, the original conception of Kafka’s Metamorphosis started with the idea of a ‘Gregor’s brain’ character and a ‘Gregor’s body’ character. Although the former grew more completely into Kafka himself, the two share a symbiotic relationship onstage.
“They’re both indelible images,” he said. “So what felt like the new opportunity was to think about creating movement that’s rooted more in interiority. How one physicalizes and stages neglect. The passage of time. That sense of erosion on the family’s relationships and on the writer’s soul.”
Synetic has sometimes addressed these themes in the past, but they have a quieter manifestation in this show. “The challenge was to build on what Synetic already does, and then to employ that vocabulary in a new way that’s much less traditionally action-driven,” Derek said. “How does Gregor’s anxiety about his family flash back to the family, to the way life was before? How to do that onstage?”
I have always been afraid of bugs. This is the first I’m mentioning it to anyone involved in the project, but better late than never. Bugs scare me, big time. It’s the legs. Similar phobias – worms, slugs, snakes – don’t strike me. But spiders, centipedes, and big beetles, with all those writhing, grasping legs…
I have a flashback to fourth grade immediately upon accepting Derek’s offer to assistant direct this show. It’s the first day of school. All the students are out on the baseball diamond in the dewy 9am sunlight, crowding together by age, meeting their new teachers. Mine comes over carrying a large photo book and a glass jar. “Guess what we’re studying first!” she says. The bright white text on the book cover reads: “INSECTS.”
My friends cheer. My stomach turns. I think: this is going to be the worst year of my life. I don’t look in the jar.
I don’t mention this memory to Derek. My own fear of bugs doesn’t seem pertinent. I pray it’s not.
Having worked with Derek before, I wasn’t surprised to see the first few pages covered in italics – the conceptual overview, often before the first spoken line, describing theme, atmosphere, sound, light, landscape. Derek’s italics are contagious; it’s hard not to get inspired in digging through those first pages, jammed full as they are with intense, excited early brainstorming:
In the dark, we hear sounds that suggest scurrying insects, the sound of mouths nibbling on bone, chewing, muffled cries of anguish, quiet strains of the Hebrew Kaddish. Layered on top of these unsettling sounds we hear voices, strangely amplified and processed…
The lights slowly rise on Franz Kafka, sitting patiently atop a table, breathing purposefully, as conspiratorial medicine – whispers of measurements, doctor’s opinions – floats in the air around him.
For Derek, it’s as much about being in Kafka’s own head as it is about being in Gregor’s. “Once it became clear to me that I didn’t just want to adapt the short story in some clear one-to-one way – that I wanted to get into Kafka’s world and his legacy – then in came these issues of Judaism, of the body, and sexuality,” he said. “All those things are there in the story, of course, but once it all came together for us it became a lot scarier. There was a sense, at times, of working without a net.”
We knew from the start that Irina (Ira) Tsikurishvili, Synetic’s powerhouse actress and choreographer, would be working on the movement in the piece, and that resident composer Koki Lortkipanidze would be crafting the music. But the crew wasn’t complete until Derek met with James Bigbee Garver (Jimmy), a new-to-town artist from New York who had sent Derek an email with some thoughts on how one might go about creating the interior of Kafka’s brain through sound.
“It was really kismet, basically, that we met when we did,” Jimmy said recently. He described his first meeting with Derek, from which the idea of live-signal processing first arose. Jimmy, who’d often worked with microphones in the past, suggested using computers to instantly generate strange sounds from within the live human voice.
“I played this for Derek,” he said. “It’s a pretty good parlor trick, actually. We were sitting outside, on a bench on the Georgetown campus. I had my laptop and headphones with me. He talked into a mic, and out came this weird new voice. I think it was kind of an eye-opener for him.”
“I suddenly had buggy sounds!” Derek said. “Jimmy literally landed in our lap. It was auspicious timing.”
Some were unsure about the use of microphones. “But I couldn’t get beyond it,” Derek explained. “The more I thought about the piece, the more I thought it needed to immerse us, needed to be buggy and dirty and quiet and in our heads. It needed interior monologue, and interior dialogue.”
The show now uses ten microphones onstage, as well as three more wireless mics. Jimmy’s work on the ten wired mics is all dry, live voices instead of processed sound. Making it work, ultimately, is all about the actors. It’s a matter of working together, and reading how the actor is integrating with the soundscape.
“It’s hard to talk into a mic with other people,” Jimmy said. “But this show is all about each other.”
Synetic’s rehearsal space is in Shirlington Village. Everyone calls it the Factory – a fitting nickname for a company dedicated to honing the machinery of promising bodies. Without a car, the ride to Shirlington is either by bus or by bike. I usually chose the latter, and saved those dollars for late-night coffee. The commute’s a steep one along Arlington Ridge, so I’d arrive to rehearsal sweating and catching my breath. It was the least I could do to contribute calories; much of my night would be spent standing, sitting, surveying the intense mental and physical work on the part of our ten cast members. At times I’d throw thoughts to Derek. At times I became his sounding board. Some nights I’d run rehearsal. Always I was excited about what we were making.
In the early days, very little was set in stone. We knew that the whole could only be created with input from everyone. The play became shorter, stronger, more distilled. We would discard whole paragraphs at a time from the script like a growing insect sheds body segments, and in would grow the perfect physical movements, simplicity and clarity discovered underneath the text.
“To me this has always been a story that has a few extraordinary haunting images and moments,” Derek said. “Gregor’s birth as a bug. His death. And the simple actions of his life. It was the power of those images, in the theatrical imagination, that made me think about it for Synetic.”
A few days ago I asked actor Frank Britton how it’s been for him. He plays the Chief Clerk, a Lodger, and a member of the Ensemble.
“It’s so fascinating,” he replied, “because every show you work on as an actor, you see shows evolving by the day, with each performance. But with Metamorphosis, it feels like it’s evolving with each second that we’re actually performing it. It’s really cool that way. And certainly the technical aspects I knew were going to be challenging, but it’s really been thrilling.”
“And it’s big!” he added. “There’s almost an epic quality to it, even though it’s based in this intimacy.”
Although Kafka’s Metamorphosis is at times horrifying, ‘intimacy’ is a fitting word for the empathy – or romance, even – we all come to feel for Gregor, trapped inside a life full of bad surprises.
“It’s all about the ways that people feel about themselves every day,” Clark Young mused. Clark plays Franz Kafka in the piece. “I do feel that it’s arduous work, but there’s a lot of payoff in feeling like we’ve captured something that people feel like every day.”
“I don’t think I expected the weight of it,” Clark added. “The sort of inherent absurdity in it. I didn’t anticipate the weight of both stories, Kafka’s and Gregor’s together… how intertwined they would be. How poignant and relevant they’d become to me.”
At first, John Milosich (Milo) found this intimacy a bit puzzling. As Gregor, Milo would in many ways become the soul of the show. At the same time, though, he’d be a man apart – a bug in a world of humans. I asked him what his inner hopes and fears were in those first few weeks.
“As soon as we started talking about and reading this script, I was afraid that I was going to be the only bug, the only disgusting one in the family or the group,” he said. “I mean, of course I was good for it, for feeling that isolation and making it part of the role. But as it was, the cast was asked to start to embody the insects too, and they started speaking lines that were my thoughts. That sort of assuaged my anxiety, that feeling of isolation. I was glad for it.”
We’ve finished a table read of the script. We take a break to let designer Natsu Onoda Power give a short presentation on the set, props, and costumes for the show. My breath catches when we get to the visual research she’s done for Milo’s bug outfit. Natsu pulls out huge photos of bugs. To envision the monstrous Gregor, she’s dug for the largest, strangest, most disturbing ones she can find. Among them are a series of isopods – big juicy crustaceans that look like a cross between ocean crabs and wood lice, with flat segmented bodies and, upturned, pairs and pairs of shivering legs.
My spine ices over. I can’t look. I make some excuse to step away. Who knows what I said.
I hope the pictures go back in Natsu’s bag. Instead, they’re pinned up on the wall of the rehearsal space, for reference. I avert my eyes from that wall whenever possible, feeling vaguely ridiculous.
“I didn’t know how much it was going to require of me,” Milo said. In the script he has read some of Derek’s early italics:
Lights come up to reveal the central playing area, Gregor’s room, which the audience views as if from the vantage point of the ceiling. This room is steeply-raked, so the slatted floor, which can be lit and populated from underneath, is in reality more like a climbing wall. The room is skewed and out of proportion, with climbable furniture…
Milo approached Derek in those first days and asked what he wanted in Gregor. Milo offered either to slim down and get scrawny, or to push himself and provide more of an athletic form. Derek decided on the latter. Given all the apparent climbing required, Milo focused on his arms and started working on his core, to have that deeper physical strength.
“I think a lot of the doing in rehearsal prepared me for it,” he said. “When I first started getting onto that set, everything hurt. It was rough and angular. There was probably a week and a half where everything was miserable. But I think it just became this gradual assimilation. Gradually, things weren’t that hard anymore. I became used to it. That became my realm.”
After a few weeks, I realize that from time to time I’m looking over at the photo wall. The bugs aren’t bothering me. In the legs of the isopods I’m starting to see Milo’s gymnastic efforts up on that climbing wall. In their compound eyes – those mysterious buggy senses of tasting, touching, hearing – I see our cast. Annie Houston and Steve Beall, putting in such strong, complicated performances as Gregor’s loving, mysterious, tormented mother and father. Catalina Lavalle as Grete, Gregor’s tender sister, who finds her own core strength and transforms into the family’s decision-maker. Caitlin Cassidy’s transcendent musical performances as the ethereal, sensuous Lady in Furs, whom Kafka speaks to as Felice Bauer, his real-life object of affection. And the other ensemble members: Charlotte Akin, Mat MacNelly, and Vince Eisenson, whose choral lines rise from beneath the surface of things… they’re in the wallpaper, at the back of our minds, under our skin.
Kafka’s Metamorphosis is an organism. Ten sets of eyes and ears combine. The actors infest Gregor’s room in small, prickly little ways. The walls are listening. The room is bugged.
“It didn’t take me long to learn that Clark was really up for anything,” Milo said. “That he was going to continuously be open and honest about his art. Right off the bat we knew that he needed to be the container for whatever I had to do, and I need to be his. Each of us needed to catch the other.”
Kafka, on the other hand, never finds himself swinging through the air upside down like Gregor does.
“For me it’s definitely subtle,” Clark said. “But I see it in very human terms. I move through the space in a very human and less stylized version of Gregor. And I often find that in thinking up our movements, one of us becomes more heightened and stylized and the other becomes more naturalistic, weighed down by the implications of being a man as opposed to a bug. That’s something I spend a lot of time doing – saying in tune with Milo.”
And how does the audience understand this physical connection? “A lot of it is in the physicality of eyes, and helping the audience understand that it’s okay to see the show through me, with me, over me. I’m not just a narrator – this is a personal physical story being told onstage that I’m breathing along with. For me it’s all about giving myself completely to the story, because that’s all that Kafka cares about. It’s about facing a sort of creeping disgust, and then embracing it, embracing the fact that this is the way I am.”
“I often look at Gregor as though he were a mirror, a reflection,” Clark added. “That always helps.”
The ceiling of the Factory is not especially high. The show, on the other hand, utilizes a high upper platform. It took until tech week at the Rosslyn Spectrum for us to truly see how our two-story set is going to live and breathe. Once it arrived at the Spectrum – and Colin K. Bills worked his lighting magic – we started to fully realize what we’d built.
At the Factory, most of the time we could only guess. We had the climbing wall, of course, although it barely fit. We had to remove some of the ceiling panels to get the whole thing upright. When Milo, in his bug suit, would climb to the top of the wall, he had his head in the space in-between floors. My thoughts often went to the unsuspecting couples eating dinner at the French bistro upstairs. How little they knew of the massive insect lurking inches beneath their feet, twisting its head balefully, crying out.
In addressing Felice Bauer, Kafka speaks these haunting few lines:
“Who knows? The more I write and the more I free myself, the purer and more worthy of you I may become. But no doubt there is still a lot more of me to be gotten rid of.”
For Kafka, writing seemed to have been a particularly dark catharsis: a series of attempts to flush out and purge all that was poisonous, guilty, shameful, sickly in himself. Kafka wrote, one could argue, to annihilate himself completely, through surrogate selves like Gregor. The young men in his stories suffer terribly and then, bit by bit, disappear.
It’s poignant, then, our process of learning how to make the story of a famous writer and his most famous story grow, each day, smaller and smaller.
“I remember one rehearsal especially that changed how I thought the voices would sound,” said Jimmy. “Derek said Milo’s voice should be higher-pitched, smaller. I hadn’t ever really considered that, because I was thinking of Gregor as more of a monstrous voice, really deep and scary.”
But Gregor, in the end, is profoundly pitiable. So Jimmy changed gears. “I mean, most bugs don’t really make sounds!” he said, laughing. “You can’t hear them at all! So, in the initial sound that I brought, I just threw everything into the mix, but then the process I went through was subtractive. I started whittling away from there.”
“It’s a piece that’s all about vulnerability,” Derek offered, referring to the need to avoid too much spectacle. “Kafka’s vulnerability, Gregor’s, and in some ways everybody’s. From a deeper view, we’re all sort of naked and buggy and covered in slime out on the stage together, in a way.”
A week before Opening Night, I dream there are bugs in my sheets. I wake up and jump out of bed, shaking.
I’ve never suffered from such uneasy dreams. Is it the show, eating away at my mind?
I sleep on the couch instead.
Ultimately, Derek is right. The quarterback and the bookworm are a perfect match.
“It’s all in the blending together,” says Frank. “I come from a musical background, and it feels really orchestral, this piece. You have the musicality of the text, the musicality of Jimmy’s sound design, and Koki’s music… it feels very much like an orchestra.”
Milo has found Synetic to be a strong home for the project. “I think working with Ira in this capacity was really great,” he says, remembering some of the choreographer’s day-long movement rehearsals. “She cracks the whip with good purpose. It’s not just rigorous – it’s an emotional experience, when you’re in the room learning her choreography and you’re either catching up or helping people catch up. Whatever I thought it might be, it was beautiful to work with her one-on-one.”
Frank remembers Ira helping him with a character walk in the minutes before opening night. “That walk I have when I first come on as the Chief Clerk? She came backstage with happy opening night wishes, and within two minutes she perfected and polished that walk with me. It’s a testament to her skill and her style, and just her wonderful, wonderful collaboration.”
Frank is already excited for next week’s shows. “It’s not every season you get to see a production like this,” he says. “I really wish I were an audience member coming to see this now. I have no idea what it looks like from the outside! I really wish I were the proverbial fly on the wall!”
Kafka’s writing follows the logic of dreams. Sudden twists of absurdity, comedy, and wrenching tragedy in his writing are all fueled by the nightmarish engine that is Kafka’s own imagination – vivid, tormented, and deeply heartfelt and insightful. What seem at first to be horror stories often provide, to our surprise, a blessed sort of existential perspective. Gregor wakes up one morning from uneasy dreams into an even more real and frightening one. We pick up the novel to examine how Kafka dreamed the painful birth of Gregor, his most well-known creation. And then we dream, for weeks and months, of how to share Gregor with you. How a man becomes a bug.
Last week I screwed up my courage. I pulled up a chair and did an extensive image search of insects online. I explored the world close-up, dug in at ground level. All at once, I met with those creepy-crawly beings from the edges of my own darkness.
I stare into a spectrum of eyes. Six, twelve, sixteen eyes at a time. I don’t turn away. I meet them on their own turf. They are the stuff of dreams – of new characters, new stories.
It’s clear all of a sudden – we only fear what we don’t understand. And who hasn’t felt as low as a bug sometimes? Who hasn’t felt trapped from time to time between short distances? Corralled in by choice particles of daily life? Intimidated by the vastness?
Who hasn’t felt, at times, like they’re about to be stepped on?
I ask them who they are, and feel a twinge of something human in their gaze. Some seem to smile a little, some look hungry, some afraid. Slowly, they start to answer back.
Kafka’s Metamorphosis runs through May 22nd. For Details, click here.