Metamorphosis at BAM

I have to admit I was expecting something darker. That’s not to say that there’s anything necessarily wrong with playing Kafka as a European sitcom (think Jacques Tati meets The Fly meets Family Ties) its just, well, a bit strange and tonally jarring. I guess I figured that the Vesturport Theatre, being Icelandic and all, would tap into some of that Northern European darkness and existential despair to craft something thoughtful, brooding, intricate and disturbing. Instead they tapped into something whimsical and flighty, creating a world that was hardly Kafkaesque at all, a world that is filled with over-the-top comedic acting, pratfalls and stage business.

In case you aren’t familiar with Kafka’s story (hard to imagine, but possible) in The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa awakens one morning to find he is a bug. His family tries to look after him at first, but they are repulsed by him, eventually abandoning him to die alone and unloved in his room. Gregor has been the house breadwinner and is now useless – his disturbing presence undermines their financially tenuous existence and they must get rid of him to survive.  Basically.  Thanks to the magic of the interwebs, you can read the whole story here. A classic of Twentieth Century literature it is Kafka’s best-known work. So taking it on theatrically is a challenge that ought not to be taken lightly.

While I think the company was serious in the way they approached the story, the choices they made are questionable. Gísli Örn Gardarsson, who also adapted and directed the piece, plays Gregor with athleticism and pathos. He crawls around the cleverly constructed set not unlike a bug and convincingly brings Gregor to life. But his performance is not enough to offset the hammy mugging of the other actors. I suppose the over-the-top performances were meant to be stylized critiques of bourgeois aspirations towards gentility but they read as broad comic swipes. The occasional gestural hint at the oncoming rise of Fascism in Europe gives the play some sense of connection to ideas outside the text, but the overall tone undermines its efforts at seriousness.

Even the music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis seems jarringly incongruous with Kafka’s text. Here Cave, known as a brooding craftsman of dark song, gives mostly light and airy acoustic environments that, while lovely, do not hint at the terror and surrealism of the situation.

The most successful part of the show was the set and lighting. The set is very cleverly constructed with the ground floor serving as the Samsa’s living room and the upper floor being Gregor’s room – but with a skewed perspective as if we were looking down into the room from above. This gives Gardarsson ample opportunity to climb around and skitter this way and that, bringing the bug Gregor into a convincingly creepy reality. The lighting is dramatic and moody and highlights the differences between Gregor’s dark world and the bland – but brighter – world of the rest of the family.

As I mentioned before, there are broad hints at deeper meanings – the crushing oppression of bourgeois conventionality, the desperation of financial ruin, the precariousness of normalcy and how the crumbling of any of these things can open the door for encroaching fascism. But the choice to go for laughs rather than pathos, to make fun of the characters rather than dig deeper into their existential despair, makes for a mostly unsatisfying production.

Having just seen Gatz, I was keenly aware of what theater can do to bring literature to life in magical ways. In the right hands, Kafka’s Metamorphosis could be a striking commentary on existential despair, a disturbing reflection on alienation and social discontent. It could probably freak you out big time. Vesturport’s production is, instead, just a mildly amusing story of a guy who turns into a bug.

Nov 30—Dec 4, 2010, 7:30pm
Dec 5, 2010, 3pm

BAM Harvey Theater
80min, no intermission
Tickets: $25, 45, 65

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