Metamorphosis is a moving and unnerving evening of theater that may leave you pondering and a little unsettled. Like the Kafka’s surreal tale, written at the beginning of the last century, the play offers no uplifting message or simple moral as it conveys the tragic tale of Gregor Samsa who wakes one morning transformed into a grotesque giant beetle. Still the bizarre story and this well-thought-out production are highly moving, drawing parallels to real life in ways that may surprise.
Although the idea of a man transformed into an insect may sound like science fiction, this production portrays the transformation as mostly metaphoric focusing instead on the less then humane treatment Gregor gets from those around him. This is a play about alienation, dehumanization and ultimately demonization.
The play opens with a pantomime of the Samsa family (Ingvar E. Sigurdsson as father Herman, Selma Bjornsdottir as mother Greta and Edda Arnljotsdottir as daughter Lucy ) starting its day, to music composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. These opening moments introduce us to the structured life and daily routine of the household. It is stiffly mechanical and slightly ridiculous, which is kind of the point. As Herman, states with pride, “ we are all small cogs in a great machine.” But this seemingly harmless uniformity soon reveals its darker side. When Gregor and his family discover his new grotesque form, their reaction is one of panic and disgrace rather then sympathy. They are mostly concerned with being discovered and judged by their neighbors and Gregor’s boss Herr Stiethl (VÍKINGUR KRISTJÁNSSON) rather then what they might do to make their family member comfortable. Such a cold reaction leads to the obvious question: who is less human? Human-sized bug Gregor or his cold-hearted family?
The production, a collaboration between Vesturport Theatre of Iceland and the Lyric Hammersmith of England is in English, yet entire production had an obvious European vibe, partly do to the fact that the cast is not speaking their native tongue. The script (co-written by Gisli Örn Gardarsson and David Farr, who also directs) sticks with rather simple language and declarative statements, giving the show an air of being a fable rather then real life. Still the entire cast does a good job of bringing bursts of real emotion to this outrageous situation.
The two true stars of this production are its set designer Borkur Jonsson and Gisli Örn Gardarsson in a tour de force, as Gregor. Mr. Gardarsson transforms himself convincingly into an insect without the use of makeup or prosthetics instead aided by Jonsson’s ingenious set, designed with nod to M.C. Escher. In the two leveled set of the Samsa home everything seems in its place, but beyond the threshold to Gregor’s room, the vantage point shifts and we see the room from a bird’s eye view. The back wall being the floor and the walls being floor and ceiling. This means every ordinary move, from bed to chair to window, demands effort and strength by the acrobatic Mr. Gardarsson. The effect is one of a person struggling to accomplish the simplest task; just right for a man in a brand new body. With staggering strength and agility Gardarsson maneuvers across the set, up and down stairs, across ceilings and more, without ever moving like a human being.
Gregor Samsa could be any of us: sweet, diligent, hard working, faithful to his family, and it’s difficult to know what Kafka had in mind when he wrote it, but this production does it’s best to reveal the social and political undertones or a tale of a individual ostracized for a condition over which he has no control. Although Kafka certainly didn’t intend it, Gregor’s story becomes an effective stand-in for antisemitism, homophobia, mental health shame or the reactionary politics of the AIDs epidemic.
Although the production is only 80 minutes, with no intermission, at times it seems to drag a bit. True to the origin, most of the characters remain stanch in there positions with no character growth or deepening. Gregor himself isn’t given much to do except crawl around pathetically and freak people out, so the production ultimately lacks a certain dramatic drive. Still the overall effect is compelling the final tableau is bound to leave you moved and possibly changed.
presented by ArtsEmerson at the The Paramount Center Mainstage, 559 Washington St., Boston
Produced by Vesturport Theatre and Lyric Hammersmith Theatre
Based on the Novella by Franz Kafka
Featuring Music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis
Now through March 3, 2013
For tickets and more information visit www.artsemerson.org or call 617-824-8400.