People change, especially in stories. Challenging circumstances shape characters, crystalizing them into emboldened heroes. In Franz Kafka’s famous short story Metamorphosis, however, hard times produce not a hero but an insect, and the story’s heroic deeds are scaled accordingly. With weirdness and comedy, the Alliance for New Music-Theatre stages Kafka’s story about a young man’s transformation into a dung beetle, preserving Kafka’s dark detail and expanding on the insect experience.
The central problem of Gregor Samsa’s life as a human, and later, bug, is expression. Gregor is a busy bee. Actor Ari Jacobson plays him as a hardworking, earnest fellow whose job supports his family but keeps him out on the road as a traveling salesman. Financial and professional demands stifle Gregor’s talents as a craftsman and artist. These passions still burn for fruition though, and in his spare time, Gregor doodles and designs, seen on the theater’s walls while an overhead projector brings these etchings to life. Throughout the play, this technique of animation provides the play with drawn props, characters and backgrounds styled after Kafka’s own sketches. The animation demonstrates Gregor’s ability to fill empty space with ideas and inspiration, pulling form and beauty from thin air even in his lowest moments.
In addition to animation, the production uses music to speak artistically for Gregor when he is physically unable. Musical arrangements and a lyric script combine to give the play a fugue aspect mirroring Metamorphosis’ themes of impermanence and shape shifting. Just as Gregor’s corporality fluctuates and his thoughts toggle back and forth between the present and reverie, composer Hugh Livingston’s arrangements ferry the play between reality and fantasy with cello pieces (played by cellist Yvonne Caruthers) that express smoothly, sorrowfully and sometimes shrilly the range of emotions felt on Gregor’s journey.
Closes September 21, 2014
Alliance for New Music-Theatre at
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
641 D St NW
1 hour, 30 minutes
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Even Gregor’s family acts less as individual characters than as a chorus commenting on the play’s action. Mother (Pamela Bierly Jusino), Father (David Millstone) and Sister Greta (Lily Kerrigan) have a routinized musicality to their lives. They eat, work and worry with a distressing syncopation. At one point, the whole family stands single file and waves their arms in a centipede-like dance, providing an image for how Gregor’s change from the family breadwinner to its disposal for stale cheese and rotten vegetables has consumed and transformed their own lives.
Ari Jacobson’s performance as Gregor makes for the play’s most compelling interpretation. As a bug, he speaks in clicks and hisses, moves his appendages in multiple directions and scurries up and down a set of variously positioned ladders. Jacobson’s movements as Gregor show an attention to the textual detail of Gregor’s predicament. In the story, Kafka does not just treat Gregor’s condition as mere metaphor for larger themes of otherness. Instead, he details very specifically life as an insect, being stuck on your back, losing a limb, going hungry. Jacobson honors these trials and plays a bug’s life with human feeling.
While nowadays Gregor could be mistaken for an overdramatic art student engaged in a very committed performance piece I’m going to stay in bed and live like a bug to symbolize man, man, the art on display in Kafka’s story and director Susan Galbraith’s music-theatre adaptation is both serious and comical when it intends. Whatever creative reality Gregor fails in embodying, occupied as he is with being an insect, the Alliance for New Music-Theatre’s production of Metamorphosis plucks the necessary instruments to ensure we hear his story as he would tell it.
Metamorphosis . Adapted from the Franz Kafka shorty story by Steven Berkoff . Directed by Susan Galbraith. Featuring, Ari Jacobson, Pamela Bierly-Jusino, David Millstone, Lily Kerrigan, Yvonne Caruthers. Lighting Design: Brian Allard. Sound Design: Neil McFadden. Animation Design: Janet Antic. Contributing Composer: Hugh Livingston. Set & Projections Designer Joey Wade. Produced by Duane Gelderloos for the Alliance for New Music Theatre. Reviewed by Richard Barry.
Jennifer Clements speaks with director Susan Galbraith
Note: Metamorphosis director Susan Galbraith is also a writer for DC Theatre Scene. That did not affect this review.
Richard Barry . DCTheatreScene Ari Jacobson’s performance as Gregor makes for the play’s most compelling interpretation.
Cyle Durkee . DCMetroTheaterArts There is an innocence derived from elegance that pervades the choices made on stage.
John Stoltenberg . MagicTime! a live action graphic novel…captivates and fascinates way beyond words.
Jennifer Perry . BroadwayWorld not quite innovative and new, but it’s not the same old thing either.
Barbara Trainin Blank . MDTheatreGuide the highly physical performances—reminiscent of silent-movie acting—should provide humor, but don’t.
Interesting displays of art through creative and ingenious visual tactics. The most expressive, and in my opinion, most important instrument of Hugh Livingston’s orchestration is the cello.