I’ve always had a fascination with insects – the hive brain, the rigid delineation between workers and soldiers, queens and drones, a repulsive caterpillar breaking out of a hard cocoon as a delicate butterfly, the viciousness of praying mantis sex, spider babies eating their mother… just your average day in a realm all around us, a kingdom we barely notice.
Gregor Samsa, the unfortunate center of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, leads a life not unlike that of a worker drone, slaving away at a clerical job so that his family may live, in particular his beloved sister Greta. His creator, writer Franz Kafka, lives in a body progresively weakened and diseased while pining for his beautiful love Felice. Director Derek Goldman takes these two and morphs them together in his adaption for Synetic Theater of the story of a man waking up one morning to find himself transformed into a nasty and unwieldy insect body. Here, Kafka’s internal rage at his body’s weakness and his psychological wounds are directly manifested as he creates Gregor’s world.
Now through May 22, you can witness this grostesque and haunted world (“creepy,” as artistic director Paata Tsikurishvili said at opening) at Rosslyn Spectrum, where the stage has been incredibly and nauseatingly transformed into wild angles by designer Natsu Onoda. Your stomach will also be turned by the sound design of James Bigbee Garver, evoking a gooey, icky insect world. It’s all lit with eerie unnaturalness by Colin K. Bills. The production design is top notch.
The adaptation itself? It’s brave, and filled with some startling imagery, but ultimately left me cold. You may feel differently, but splitting the main character dropped the stakes significantly – I found myself unable to care for Gregor’s plight, and just wished Kafka would stay behind the writing desk. That being said, it’s an intriguing production whose merits I’m still debating.
There’s a strong beginning here, with John Milosich as Gregor Samsa’s Body encased in a purposefully over-the-top bug costume. It’s all clinically described by Gregor Samsa’s Brain, or Kafka, played with a detached air by Clark Young (perhaps too detached). Gregor’s claustrophobic reaction is made palpable by Milosich, panicking as his wretched situation unfolds, and once we see his human eyes the sadness is even more extreme.
As Gregor becomes more insect-like, his costume sheds, a reverse chrysalis. The set becomes littered with the trash his sister leaves for his food – you can almost smell the stench described. Into this topsy-turvy world Kafka’s love Felice drifts in and out in amazingly creative entrances. Caitlin Cassidy beautifully communicates only by song – she’s the pristine unobtainable object for both.
The ensemble acting is good throughout, and Goldman weaves in many themes – the “Jewish Question,” the Gregor/Kafka mirror, the worker drone dying for his queen. Gregor finds no freedom in his new body, and except for one moment where he swings on a lamp post, the extreme angle set is barely used as an insectarium. The degradation he suffers is weighty indeed. Everything is endured so that his sister, a chilling Catalina Lavalle, may thrive. There is indeed a queen who survives, and Goldman saves the best image for last, a riveting final moment.
So why am I still wavering on whether I actually enjoyed the production? For me, the middle section dragged, a cardinal sin for a ninety-minute play. Removing Gregor as the primary protagonist, giving his voice to another, was distracting and really gutted the heart of the action. Sadly, the character of Kafka began to annoy me. Ultimately, what was edgy at the beginning lost its bite until the end. A friend was less forgiving – calling it all “self-indulgent.” Was it the pacing? Or just too many themes? Not sure, but it’s a risk that Goldman and Synetic seemed willing to take. You may wish to as well.
Synetic Theater at Rosslyn Spectrum Theater
1611 N Kent Street
Arlington, VA 22209
Tickets Online or 800.494.8497