Saturday, July 16, 2011

Metamorphosis, at the Aurora

Once in a while, a theater company mounts a play that makes you think, “Now why can’t every other show I see be like this?” The Aurora’s production of Metamorphosis, adapted from the Kafka novel by David Farr and Gísli Örn Gardarsson was just such an experience, and you only have one more week to catch it.

The book, as you may recall from required reading of years past, begins with one of the most famous opening lines in all of literature: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic vermin.” (That last part is also translated as “insect,” “cockroach,” or “beetle.”) Up ‘til then, Gregor (Alexander Crowther) had been a traveling salesman who worked long hours to support his father (Allen McKelvey), mother (Madeline H.D. Brown) and sister (Megan Trout), all of whom, in this production, hail from 1950s America (rather than early 20th-century Germany), an interpretation that makes the oppression Kafka loathed all the more real for contemporary audiences, helping us understand why no one ever asks how or why but just tries, unsuccessfully, to move on and ignore.

(Alexander Crowther, as the man-cum-insect. All photos by David Allen.)

Let’s be grateful to director Mark Jackson, who, among other outstanding choices, decided not to render Gregor’s transformation with a ridiculous costume. Instead, it is Gregor’s movements (Crowther manages arthropodic jumps with an acrobat’s agility) and his family’s horrified reactions that make Gregor into a bug. They are also helped, however, by the show’s impeccable design. Set designer Nina Ball situates Gregor’s bedroom upstage and upstairs from the family’s living room, raking it at what appears to be almost a 45 degree angle, which literally prevents Gregor from moving the way a human does, while also suggesting the pressure that was on him even before he became a bug. Sound designer Matthew Stines overlays two recordings of string instruments—one in which they scream out the chilling sound of insects in flight, another in which they play a plaintive classical quartet—masterfully capturing the way the family’s terror and sadness intermingle.

No one in the family ever says he or she misses Gregor. More often the members are simply so tense that you expect their tightened smiles to suddenly contort into something that faces can’t do—especially when a potential boarder (and income source), played by the delightful Patrick Jones, surveys the lodging. In this scene, each member of the cast excels; the cancerous burden the family bears makes them hopelessly awkward in their desperation. You hold your breath, hoping they can just get out a sentence that makes sense but knowing they won’t be able to—a scene simultaneously at the height of both humor and pathos.

Farr and Gardarsson’s script is exemplary adaptation. They have streamlined the play into a drama of territory—who is allowed into what space?—and a drama of secrecy. And the tension rarely wavers under Jackson’s well-choreographed staging. In this world, the mechanization of modern life infects the human body; not a footstep, pivot or smile—even in the privacy of the home—is immune.

But Jackson still finds beauty in this cynical statement on modern life and family. In the show’s lovely final image, Jackson assures us that a compassionate gaze can look in on a cruel world and still maintain its integrity. Perhaps we must then ask ourselves whether we can see the beauty and goodness in our own.

Metamorphosis continues through July 24. Info here.

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