Friday, March 1, 2013

Meet the beetle

Gísli Örn Gardarsson as Grego Samsa in Metamorphosis.  Photo by Eddi. 

As we all know, one morning, after a night of troubled dreams, Gregor Samsa awoke to find that he had been transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.

Whether poor Gregor had morphed into a giant cockroach or an outsized dung-beetle remains a topic of some debate.  But whatever his genus and species, the shock of his translation, rendered in the calmest prose imaginable, has echoed throughout literature (and the culture) ever since Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis first crept into print.

And now, almost a century later - another shock: The Metamorphosis has been translated to the stage, in a production that was born in Iceland (at the Vesturport Theatre), then wowed them in London (at the Lyric Hammersmith), and has now touched down at ArtsEmerson through this weekend only.

And I'm happy to report that, amazingly enough, much (though perhaps not all) of Kafka's weird vision has survived the leap from page to stage, thanks largely to a gymnastic performance by lead Gísli Örn Gardarsson that is not only convincing emotionally and intellectually, but also insect-ually.

There's solid work elsewhere in the production (tough little Selma Björnsdóttir is a standout as the initially-sympathetic sister) but it's Gardarsson who holds us fascinated. His evocation of Gregor's six-legged scamper is only made possible, however, by the production's ingeniously imaginative set, by Börkur Jónsson, which offers on the first floor a happy bourgeois home in which all is as it should be, while upstairs, in Gregor's lonely aerie, all is topsy-turvy: indeed, we seem to be looking down on his pathetic bed as if we were (yes) a fly on the wall.

This rupture in our expectations of space resonates nicely with the inexplicability of Gregor's plight; and the structural sturdiness of his furniture (along with a concealed trampoline) transforms his abode into a kind of jungle gym across which Gardarsson skitters and leaps to his family's understandable screams.  He and co-director David Farr have also roughly honored the development of Kafka's text.  Some symbolic episodes (Gregor's wounding by an apple thrown by his father, for instance) have been elided, while others have been extrapolated (in this version he actually crashes through the ceiling at one point), but it's so striking to see Kafka's fantastical action given believable life onstage that we're ready to forgive almost any gap in narrative detail.

Still, it must be said that despite its stunning staging, Metamorphosis doesn't quite earn the curious accolade/sobriquet of "Kafkaesque" (as we say today).  The problem is that Gardarsson and Farr have, perhaps almost unknowingly, transliterated Gregor's transformation into a sentimental horror-movie/pop/rock idiom that obscures Kafka's deepest meanings (they've even enlisted Nick Cave and Warren Ellis of The Bad Seeds to compose a morosely noodling score).  And they've decided in a rather pat way to frame Kafka's fable as a presentiment of the Nazi era (even though the author lived in Prague, in a Jewish family, and The Metamorphosis was conjured two decades before Hitler came to power; close enough, I guess!).

Thus we often forget during the stage version that the original novella kept us suspended in a curious mix of horror as well as sympathy; Herr K's po-faced descriptions of Gregor's revolting new form hold the reader at some distance from his suffering, and insinuate that in a way he deserves his metamorphosis, that it's only the physicalization of an unseen inner decline; in existential terms, this feckless traveling salesman, relentlessly exploited by his family to finance their own dreams, has been a cockroach for a long time.

Indeed, perhaps the essence of the "Kafkaesque" is the victim's participation in his own imprisonment; but Metamorphosis rarely hints at this paradoxical theme - except in the poignant moment when Gregor fails at a final escape (and we notice that the cracks in the walls of his room are all shaped like birds).  But more often than not, we find ourselves simply watching a handsome, shirtless young man alone in his room, twisted in pain, or being abused by his family (who themselves slowly metamorphose into clownish fascists). And the doomy warblings of Nick Cave don't help much; indeed, as I watched Metamorphosis I mused on how the self-pitying angst of rock-and-roll has far too often usurped the astringent perceptions of modernism in far too many academic heads.  Rock - even smart, self-aware rock - is hardly modernism; I wish sometimes the ART and ArtsEmerson (and the Phoenix) could remember that.

If you countered, however, that such qualms are mere quibbles before the production's many imaginative coups - well, I'd still argue, but I'd admit you have a point.  Certainly fans of The Metamorphosis will not want to miss what I'd call the most convincing stage production of this twentieth-century totem that any of us will ever live to see.


  1. I was hoping it would be a bit more like this:

    "I've got little, tiny bug feet. I don't really know what bugs eat."

  2. I truly wanted to love it, I was prepared to love it, but I did not love it.

  3. The youtube video link is hilarious!