02 July 2011


I re-entered the insect world a couple of days after The Insect Play when I went to Aurora Theater’s production of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, adapted by David Farr and Gisli Orn Gardarsson, directed by Mark Jackson. The Aurora not only has frequent specials on their tickets (mine was only $25) but (at least on Tuesdays) we are spared the silliness of waiting until 8:00 since the show starts at the reasonable hour of 7:00 (and they don’t seem to have any trouble filling the theater at that hour). These things encourage me to go to plays I might otherwise skip, which is great because Aurora has a very interesting season coming up.

I enjoyed Metamorphosis, but perhaps more in retrospect than during the performance, since I had made what turned out to be the mistake of re-reading Kafka’s story a few days earlier. The play is insistently described as Kafka’s Metamorphosis, but it is oddly dependent on the audience knowing the basic story but not remembering any of Kafka's details. The drastic change that has come upon Gregor Samsa (the adeptly physical and moving Alexander Crowther) goes undescribed in the play; presumably the audience already knows that this is the story of a man who wakes up one morning as a giant bug. But so many details are changed that if the story is fresh in your mind you’re likely to spend the whole time wondering why they were changed.

Some of these changes work and some don’t and some are half-and half. This version is set in mid-century America, and though the new setting conjures up associations with 1950s horror films and the underlying fear of the nuclear bomb, it also creates incongruities, even if you are willing to accept that an all-American midcentury family would have children named Gregor and Grete. The original stage adaptation was, according to the program, set in Europe before the outbreak of the Second World War, a setting in which the lodger’s speech about “cleaning up the vermin” makes more sense. And in 1950s America, why would the lodger (now an up-and-coming manager in the department store where Grete works, and a single character, without the two companions found in Kafka) be taking a bus instead of driving his own car? People like that do not take the bus, at least not in America.

The family itself is now more mainstream and conventional than the struggling and somewhat forlorn Prague family in the original, and their presentation as an idealized mid-century middle-class middle-American family is by its very nature almost inescapably satirical. The apple that his father throws at Gregor, which gets stuck in his back and starts rotting, a detail that for many readers creates an indelible sense of the physicality of the transformation, is here transformed into a loaf of French bread with which the father beats him back to his room – but why would anyone, let alone someone concerned about grocery money, hit a filthy insect with a fresh loaf of bread instead of grabbing a newspaper or slipper?

The Lodger (a sharp and funny Patrick Jones) is now presented as a possible love interest for Grete (the sympathetic Megan Trout). But by making that change they make the Lodger’s rudeness during her performance inexplicable – if he’s attracted to her, why is he suddenly treating her with such contempt? Also, for reasons I don’t understand, Grete is now a ballet dancer instead of a violinist. I can see that she might play the violin for a dinner guest, but it’s bizarre for a grown young woman to prance around the living room in a pink tutu before dinner. More significantly, setting him up as a possible love-interest for Grete mutes the astonishing moment at the end of the story when the three surviving Samsas leave their apartment and take a trolley ride to the country, and the parents suddenly realize that Grete is now an attractive young woman who could have plenty of suitors. If they realize that earlier, and she actually has at least one promising suitor, then that ending, with its sudden awareness of vibrant physical health and love, loses its punch.

Changes like that (there were many others, large and small) kept pulling me out of the story; it’s difficult to accept a new version on its own when you keep wondering why certain changes were made or why certain incongruities weren't smoothed out. This is a general problem with adapting famous novels to the stage, with the possible exception of the RSC’s triumph with Nicholas Nickleby, which I saw on Broadway many years ago. But I’ve seen some that were completely inexplicable to me, such as the version of My Antonia at TheaterWorks a few years ago that was such a foolish travesty of the novel that I made V, who accompanied me, promise that she would read Cather’s original – something which could have been done in about the length of time it took us to get to Mountain View, sit through the play, and then drive back. I’m still befuddled by what was billed at ACT a few years ago as Gogol’s The Overcoat, which changed every single thing of significance about the story, turning it into a sort of sentimental sub-Chaplin pantomime. It was OK, but why would you take a weird and unsettling and utterly original work and turn it into something generic?

I should probably make clear at this point that I would recommend The Metamorphosis, even though you can read the original in about the time it takes to attend the play (though for maximum enjoyment wait until after you see the show to do that). The performers were all excellent (I haven’t yet mentioned Allen McKelvey and Madeline H.D. Brown as the parents, both of them equal to the rest of the outstanding cast). And there’s always the curiosity factor: how will they handle the bug? Given director Jackson’s interest in theatrical movement, I wasn’t really surprised to see it was all done through movement rather than some papier-mâché thorax. As soon as I saw Crowther upstage in a suit and tie, I knew what was going to happen: as he became more settled in bug-life, and more despairing, he started losing articles of clothes (though he never gets completed naked, which I thought was a brilliant touch; the naked human body has a beauty and vulnerability that appeals to other humans naturally; instead, he is in a wifebeater and a pale pair of boxers, which make him seem appropriately drab and diminished).

Nina Ball’s set makes excellent use of the Aurora’s stage; the lower part, which is surrounded on three sides by the audience, is a normal, realistic living room set, but above is Gregor’s room, an Expressionistic nightmare of sharply tilted confined space.

As the audience was leaving I saw a woman with a video camera planted at the passage to the street, asking people what they thought of the performance. I thought she was filming her group for some reason but then I realized she was apparently with the theater and filming anyone who answered, presumably for advertising. I have never seen this done before and would like to discourage it. I do not want to be ambushed by cameras as I leave a theater and am unlikely to be persuaded to see a show by random strangers exclaiming, “I loved it!”

The show has been extended through July 24; check it out. Ticket information here; I recommend calling the very helpful box office since their on-line system is "best [sic] seat available" instead of showing you all available seats and letting you choose the one you think is best.

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