"Metamorphosis": Kafka's Classic Takes the Stage Sideways
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin,” begins Franz Kafka’s novella “The Metamorphosis,” quickly sliding from the mundane to the nightmarish. Vesturport Theatre and Lyric Hammersmith Theatre’s stage adaptation at Paramount Center Mainstage began in a similar, eerie fashion—the Samsa family’s morning bustle was interrupted by the flash of a beetle silhouette, hinting at the change that had taken place. With a creative take on portraying Gregor’s transformation and a set that channeled the creepiness of the Kafka’s original story, the production, which closed on Sunday, had a powerful aesthetic design. The actors were all from Iceland, and it is perhaps this language barrier that prevented many of the lines from reaching their full emotional potential. The show also faltered in the static acting of the performers, making the other elements a mere carapace for a production with a hollow emotional core.
The choice to leave Gregor (Gísli Ö. Gardarsson) as a human instead of decking him out in a beetle costume was consistent with Kafka’s wishes—the author explicitly instructed his cover illustrator not to depict Gregor’s transformation, preferring to leave it to the reader’s imagination. Indeed, the original German version never even specifies that Gregor has become an insect, referring to him with an old German word meaning “unclean animal.” Instead of going for a literal depiction, the production opted for a different way to create an air of menace: Gardarsson crawled across the walls, flipped through the air, and perched eerily on furniture. His performances were both breathtaking and unnerving—in one scene, Gardarsson hung upside-down while speaking calmly, the blood visibly rushing to his head. The decision to use this acrobatic scuttling as a means to represent Gregor’s beetle form without actually outfitting him with a shell and wings provided an unsettling alternative to the literal depiction of a beetle.
The set and the cast’s interactions with it proved to be one of the highlights of the production. While most of the house was typical and modest, when it came to Gregor’s bedroom, set designer Börkur Jonsson unleashed his dark creativity: the room was at a perpendicular to the rest of the set, with the “floor” facing the audience where the back wall should have been. The walls were studded with crannies that Gardarsson grabbed on to when clambering around. Rather than providing a mere backdrop for the action, then, the set was an integral part of the production, playing up the sinister poetry of Kafka’s original. The pinnacle of this successful cooperation was the flight scene, in which Gregor resolves to leave the family that he has caused so much harm. With golden light streaming into the dark room through the many holes in the wall, Gardarsson entwined himself in one of the curtains and, suspended in midair, gave Gregor’s gymnastic swan song, a wordless performance that conveyed his pain while maintaining a sense of effortless grace.
The strongest components of the production were those that were nonverbal; however, cracks started to appear when it came to the acting. The language barrier, which led to unnatural line breaks and inflection, made it hard for the Icelandic cast to emote. The acting itself was exaggerated as well, sometimes to a painful degree. Particularly overwrought were the scenes with the lodger, Herr Fischer (Vikingur Kristjánsson), whom the family received with cringe-inducing shouted toasts. Later on, trying to disguise her affection for their guest, Greta (Selma Björnsdóttir) snapped to attention clownishly and barked orders at him. Because the characters’ emotions seemed to be over the top at all times, their relationships were sapped of their power, and the decay of their interactions over time was not as moving as it should have been. The cast would do well to remember the mantra “less is more”—as Gregor’s mother, Edda Arnljótsdóttir was most affecting when sitting at the foot of the stairs and weeping softly over the loss of her son, but her awkward fistfight with Greta and her frequent bouts of screaming lacked any sense of genuine feeling. The subtlety that made the set and costume choices so strong was completely absent here; instead, the family was presented as cartoonish and flat.
It is difficult to take one of the most recognizable works of world literature and add something unexpected, but the acrobatic elements and moments of simple beauty in this staging manage to do just that beautifully. Where the production strayed from simplicity, however, it ran into problems. Had it focused more on the minimal, the unadorned, the show would have captured the tragedy of the slow disintegration of the Samsa family and Gregor’s psyche. As it was, the human connections were drowned out by heavy-handed performances, resulting in a production that turned every character into a beast.
—Staff writer Erica X. Eisen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.