Gregor Samsa is having a bad day. Not a bad hair day, or a woke-up-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-bed bad day, or even an overslept-and-missed-the-bus bad day. No, Gregor Samsa is having a really bad day: he has just awoken to discover that overnight he has turned into some sort of monstrous insect.
Fans of the great Czech-Jewish writer Franz Kafka will recognize Gregor, the man-turned-bug, as the protagonist and narrator of Metamorphosis, one of the writer’s most important and well-known works. The novella follows young Gregor and his family through this sometimes-comical, sharply ironic and ultimately grisly transformation and (spoiler alert for a nearly century-old novella) his ultimate demise.
Kafka’s Metamorphosis has inspired numerous dramatic productions over the years – who can resist the fantastic tale of a man turned into a roach, or a dung beetle, or a vermin, depending on the translation you prefer. Currently the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for New Music Theatre is presenting a stylized stage adaptation of the popular and widely read work.
This Metamorphosis, adapted by British playwright Steven Berkoff with additional music and movement contributions from the alliance’s artistic director Susan Galbraith, runs through Sept. 21, at Woolly Mammoth’s bare-bones D.C. rehearsal studio as part of the Czech Embassy’s month-long Mutual Inspirations Festival.
Featuring a spare cello score by composer Hugh Livingston, which is at times contemporary and at times hearkens back to Kafka’s era in the early 1900s, the work is neither operetta nor musical theater in the traditional sense.
Director Galbraith has hewn mostly to Kafka’s novella and included added Kafka embellishments: clever animations of the writer’s actual sketches designed by Janet Antich (and executed by Dokken Shapero), which mostly replace an actual stage set, here contributed by Joey Wade. A modest platform, three stools, a few ladders and another chair on a separate platform comprise the entire universe of the Samsa family’s existence, a suggestion of rather well-appointed apartment, where all the action in this 90-minute intermission-less work unfolds. Among the lively and tuneful songs cellist Yvonne Carruthers plays on stage is a traditional “L’cha Dodi,” to welcome the Jewish Sabbath, and, later, a popular Czech Christmas carol, for Czech Jews assiduously celebrated Christmas along with their Christian neighbors.
But the musical support also provides an atmosphere divorced from reality, lending a surrealist aura to the action, and underscoring the family’s arguments over caring for their son-turned-bug. At one point, the mother, father and sister Greta squawk like chickens accompanied by Caruthers’ equally barnyard-sounding string work. Galbraith inserts filmic techniques, among them flashback scenes and family battles played out in exaggerated slow motion, which allow the piece to meander from reality into heightened melodrama and movement theater simultaneously. Costumed in blacks, whites and grays, save for crimson knee patches on Gregor, the four members of the Samsa family resemble the spare, pallid characters of an Edward Gorey cartoon.
Gregor, here played by Ari Jacobson with a tinge of adolescent reproach, especially toward his parents, is not merely a stand-in for Kafka himself. Gregor presents himself as a man desirous of creating rather than selling, but is stuck in the day-in-and-day-out rat race to work long hours, in his case as a traveling salesman.
There’s nothing gory or grotesque in this production about the transformation made from man to insect. In fact, Galbraith has Jacobson emphasize hunched shoulders and compacted forearms to represent his change from human to insect. Soon enough he folds himself in, twisting his legs like pretzels and balancing upside from his chair.
Yet Gregor is not the only one to undergo a transformation in this production – slight costume changes demonstrate how this unexpected phenomenon has shaken up the entire family. Mrs. Samsa, played with great understanding and candor by Pamela Bierly-Jusino, demonstrates her motherly struggle: she wishes to be a supportive and loving parent, even to this grotesque creature who remains her own flesh and blood, but she simply doesn’t have the capacity to stomach his drastic and unappealing transformation.
As Mr. Samsa, David Millstone must uphold the archetypal middle European patriarchal figure, but in reality, this father is completely emasculated, shoulders bowed and walking with a cane, unable to support his wife and daughter in the genteel, fading-middle-class lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. Instead we see from Mr. Samsa’s bitterness as he turns against his son, the only member of the household who had worked.
There’s much that feels Jewish about this production – from the opening moments when the family enters discussing Shabbos kugel and Mrs. Samsa lights the cleverly animated candlesticks.
And while Kafka and his family were not terribly religious, they were culturally Jewish.
In Metamorphosis, the specter of anti-Semitism hangs over the family, particularly in the way they fear their son will be found out and scolded by his office manager.
While Edgar Allan Poe is often credited with creating the modern short story, it is Kafka we look to for the creation of the modern, serious male protagonist. Gregor is that: a serious man, a quintessential outsider, both within his own family and, in a larger sense, within society as a whole. He’s a Jew in an unfriendly and sometimes even dangerous world.
Did Jews of Kafka’s era have to work twice as hard and be twice as reliable to merit the same status as their non-Jewish co-workers? Jewish literature is filled with these quintessential outsiders, the outcasts and outliers. In Gregor, who is Kafka’s alter ego, we see all three. He is not merely an outcast in society and his job, but even in his intimate home setting, the three Samsas can’t completely come to accept Gregor. Once he becomes fully insect, he is rejected by both his parents – his mother repulsed, his father, disgusted that they’ve lost the family breadwinner. Only sister Greta, the lovely ingénue Lily Kerrigan, can shoulder the unpleasant burden of Gregor’s care.
As in many families when a crisis strikes, the children exhibit the fortitude their parents lack. Kafka has captured the alienation of the 20th- and now 21st-century urbanized, modern white-collar worker: long, senseless days of toil that result not in a tangible product, but instead in a concept. Is he suggesting in Metamorphosis, that change or transformation can only make a bad situation worse? It’s one of many takeaways from this compelling literary work brought to bear again in an enlivened stage production.
Metamorphosis is onstage through Sept. 21. Alliance for New Music Theatre at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D Street, N.W. Tickets, $20-$30, are available at 202-966-3104 or newmusictheatre.org.