Entertainment » Theatre

Metamorphosis

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Friday Mar 1, 2013
A scene from "Metamorphosis"
A scene from "Metamorphosis"  

You can't help but not think of Spider-Man as Gisli Orn Gardarsson climbs, hangs, swings, crawls and scurries on the walls and floor in "Metamorphosis", the inspired theatrical adaptation of Kafka's famous tale (a joint production of Iceland's Vesturport Theatre and London's Lyric Hammersmith Theatre).

Not that he's dressed in colorful spandex and singing songs by U2, but Gardarsson -- a supple actor with amazing stamina -- physicalizes his metamorphosis into an insect with such regret that your heart goes out to him. He may be saying all the right things; but his family, which includes his mother, father and sister, only hear shrill noise, like legs rubbing against each other to create an unpleasant din. And don't mention the stench. Morphing into a bug can be a nasty business.

It also can be darkly funny, touching, baffling, gorgeous, scary and altogether mesmerizing in the hands of Gardarsson, the artistic director of Vesturport Theatre, and David Carr, who heads the Lyric Hammersmith. (The pair did the adaptation of Kafka's 1915 novella and collaborated on the ingenious staging.)

Other stage adaptations -- particularly a splashy Broadway one that starred Mikhail Baryshnikov 20-odd years ago -- played up the story's political subtexts, but Gardarsson and Carr approach the story as if it were a Guillermo del Toro horror film. There's a monster in an upstairs bedroom and Samsa family are stymied as what to do with him.


A scene from "Metamorphosis"  

Gregor wasn’t always a monster; but when he’s unable to get out of bed one morning he’s stymied by what is happening to him, as is the audience, thanks to Borkur Jonsson’s production design that turns Gregor’s bedroom on its side, creating a Hitchcock-like cinematic perspective of looking down from the ceiling.

What has happened to him? Though he tells his family members that he’s fine and will catch the next train to his office job, no one can understand him. When the door finally opens, they recoil in horror: he’s become a giant bug.

But Gregor doesn’t convey this with some fanciful costume; instead he does so with body movement, curling up like a scared spider on a chair or scurrying along a wall like a coach roach seeking shelter. (His movement is greatly enhanced by the strategically placed pieces of furniture that allow Gardarsson to move in this skewed environment with gravity-defying ease.)

There is, though, no shelter. He’s trapped and his family, huddling in the downstairs room, can’t figure out what to do with him.

At first Greta feels for him -- whatever he’s become, Gregor is still her brother. She feeds him rotten cheese, cleans his tray and even attempts to communicate with him. That comes to naught: though Gregor is perfectly understandable to the audience as he expresses his bewilderment, Greta can only hear a high-pierced noise. (There is no Rosetta Stone for the language he speaks.)

His parents respond with less humanity. An attempt to bring Gregor down to sit at the dinner table becomes a sad comedy of rejection, which is repeated later on when Greta brings Herr Fischer, a work mate, home to rent a room.

When Gregor rears his ugly head (quite literally), Herr Fischer recoils in horror. Gregor remains the elephant (so to speak) in the room that no one can deal with.


A publicity still for "Metamorphosis"  

What makes "Metamorphosis" so extraordinary is the movement -- it isn’t as much staged as choreographed. Take the opening sequence, in which the maid comes in the early morning, followed by the family (sans Gregor) coming in for breakfast.

Each entrance is timed to the dreamy music (by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis) -- a lovely theme for mandolin and piano that slowly builds until the family sits contently at the dining room table; that is until they realize that Gregor has overslept to get to his office (he’s a salesman that lives only for his job.)

Or when Gregor descends the stairs, on all fours, but on the railing. So the mingling of comedy and horror begins, which only has one possible ending.

That is achieved with a moment of great poignancy, but getting there is a disquieting journey of a bourgeoisie family not quite coping with supernatural circumstances. Not only does Gregor continually change, but also so does his family attitude towards him.

Gregor may exist within that insect shell, but there’s no Elephant Man moment -- like a monster from an old Universal horror film, he must be demonized.

As the play continues, the family puts up with their situation. Herman finds a menial job (that allows him to proudly wear a uniform he refuses to take off); mother must learn to keep the household having sent the maid away; and Greta takes a job in a department store, where she meets the ambitious Herr Fischer, a self-absorbed dandy who comes to rent the family’s extra room.

If there’s a theatrical corollary to this production it can be found in the black comic style of Martin McDonough, specifically his equally fanciful "The Pillowman." Fantasy and reality converge in a surreal sitcom.


A scene from "Metamorphosis"  

There are some political underpinnings. The production appears to take place in Prague during the 1930s and there are hints of the political turmoils to come. Just the mention of the word extermination brings to mind what could have been Gregor’s fate, especially since he hides in an attic. But none of this is overdone, instead it is textured in this Czech horror story that puts the emphasis on the ongoing trauma the family endures rather than its broader political and social underpinnings.

Gardarsson conveys Gregor’s confusion, fears and alienation with heartbreaking matter-of-factness. It’s as if he doesn’t realize what’s happening to him. His dexterity is amazing, be it climbing up a wall and hanging upside down in a window or bouncing of the floor (courtesy of a hidden trampoline) like a bug learning to fly. (He is a former gymnast and those skills are well utilized here.) Selma Björnsdóttir’s Greta also goes through a transformation, from sympathetic ally to sadistic oppressor without missing a beat.

As the father and mother, Ingvar E. Sigurdsson and Edda Arnljótsdóttir are caricatures of mittel-European bourgeoisie, and are quite funny at it. And in a variety of roles, including an officious bureaucrat, and, most memorably, Greta’s obnoxious suitor, Víkingur Kristjánsson is in perfect pitch with the eerie comic tone the production sustains over its 80-minute length.

Special note should be given to set designer Jonsson, who most effectively creates two different points-of-view in the same house, without which this strange tale could not be as theatricalized as well as it is here. Björn Helgason’s pinpoint lighting design focuses the eye throughout the upstairs/downstairs action; and Nick Manning provides the appropriately creepy soundscape.

In short, "Metamorphosis" dazzles with dark irony and haunting images. It may turn out to be the most memorable staging to play in Boston this season.

"Metamorphosis" continues through Sunday, March 3, 2013 at the Paramount Center Mainstage, 559 Washington Street, Boston, MA. For more information, visit the ArtsEmerson website.


Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].


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