by Jeff Grygny
What’s the worst thing that could happen to you? Triple that, quadruple that, and you have the predicament of Gregor Samsa, the unfortunate protagonist of Metamorphosis, which has just finished its run as a movement theater performance by Theatre Gigante. Samsa’s already miserable life gets much worse when he discovers that he’s inexplicably become a giant insect. Flawlessly cast and directed with style and a sound concept by Isabel Kralj, this interpretation of Franz Kafka’s story captures the original’s dark humor, existential dread, and heartbreaking sense of humanity and it’s limits.
According to Kralj, she fell in love with the story when she was a teen, and it’s not difficult to find an adolescent sensibility in Gregor, who lives with his parents and has, shall we say, body issues. His hapless, not-quite-innocent family is portrayed by Hannah Klapperich-Mueller, Ron Scott Fry, and Silena Milewski, all in pale makeup and black and white costumes, in a mannered acting style that makes them seem almost like marionettes, or characters in a grim Eastern European cartoon. Nonetheless, each manages to show a kernel of humanity— as all great puppets do—particularly Milewski as Samsa’s long-suffering sister, who tends to him out of devotion until it all becomes too much. Klapperich-Mueller as their mother does wonders with a pretty undeveloped character. As Gregor, Edwin Olvera delivers a tour-de-force of modern dance. Beginning in a stylized black suit, he distills Samsa’s daily grind into a sequence of movements that accelerate to show a soulless existence, devoid of joy or intimacy. The transformed Olvera wears black trunks in lieu of a corny cockroach suit: his bare flesh presents an abject human being, with grotesque, contorted movements. Olvera’s years with the Pilobolus Dance Company, famous for being inspired by organic forms, could not have prepared him better for this role. It’s impressive how much Olvera communicates non-verbally, from awkwardness with his unwelcome new body to Samsa’s ever-shifting emotional states.
Samsa’s thoughts are voiced equally impressively by Ben Yela. With total imaginative commitment and not a trace of ironic detachment, he creates another rich channel for expressing his character’s deteriorating psyche. As they sink deeper into inhumanity, Yela subtly adopts an insectoid voice and posture; it’s a brilliant performance from one of the city’s finest young actors. Meanwhile, Kralj’s stagecraft incorporates the strategic abuse of organic materials (apples and milk) to effectively create an appropriately disgusting environment that’s not too disgusting. Alan Piotrowicz’s constructivist set and lighting further support the show’s aesthetic orientation, while the sound track, which Kralj selected from the work of Slovenian composer Borut Kržišnik, ranges from moody atmospheres to jazzy breaks to avant-garde noise.
The title Metamorphosis is borrowed from Ovid’s classical poem of Greek myth, telling how the gods punished or rewarded mortals by transforming them into various non-human forms. It depicted a world where god, human, and animal exist on a continuum of being in an organic cosmos. Kafka, writing in the age of machines, draws a radically different cosmos, where the laws of science rule in place of the gods, and human fate is governed by the implacable forces of capital. Yet for all its surrealism, Samsa’s predicament is strangely moving for anyone who has had a debilitating injury, or has had to care for an ailing relative, or even had to put down a pet. With clarity and honesty, Metamorphosis gives a knowing nod to all those who can no longer provide value in a transactional world.
Contrary to popular belief, Kafka actually had friends and pastimes, and he apparently participated in the cultural life of his native Bohemia. Yet, like Samsa, he caved in to family pressure, laboring unhappily for years as an insurance salesman; his writings were never published during his short life. With their peculiar blend of dark comedy and surrealism, they have earned him his own personal adjective, and Metamorphosis virtually created the sub-genre that became known as “body horror.” But unlike later practitioners, Kafka brought a sense of the absurd and genuine human feeling to his isolated antiheroes. If the idea of “following your bliss” had been current at the time, Metamorphosis might never have been written—but we would have lost a classic of high modernist alienation.
Theatre Gigante presents
Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka
Adapted and Directed by Isabelle Kralj
Music by Borut Kržišnik
January 25 through 28, 2018