Arts & Events

Theater Review: Metamorphosis at Aurora

By Ken Bullock
Wednesday June 22, 2011 - 09:57:00 AM

A pair of shoes on the floor of the parlor of the Samsa family home. The Father (Allen Mckelvey), staring at the shoes, calls the Mother (Madeline H. D. Brown) to see them, as their daughter Grete (Megan Trout) hovers near--and son Gregor (Alexander Crowther) lies in bed--or rather on an iron bed-frame on a tilted floor that resembles a washboard (Nina Ball's compact, homey yet vertiginous set)--upstairs in his room, not having gone to work ... 

In a few moments, his family will discover Gregor's metamorphosed into a bug. 

Not exactly a bug, beetle, cockroach, as usually the creature Gregor becomes in Kafka's Metamorphosis (here in Aurora Theatre's production, Mark Jackson directing an adaptation by David Farr of Royal Shakespeare and Gisli Orn Gararsson) is alluded to ... though in Kafka's story, it's referred to as "Ungezeifer," an unclean creature or vermin, as Alicia Coombes program note defines it. This has been the crux of the problem for staging Kafka's text--maybe the toughest to put on as theater or film or TV of a writer some think impossible to adapt, whose effects are achieved solely through words, language--how to represent what filmmaker Georges Franju, no slouch at fleshing out the ineffable, called the "problem of the animal." 

The script and Jackson's direction solve that neatly, with Gregor appearing and sounding to us as a young man, but to whoever's onstage as a skittering vermin, or worse, his spoken lines incomprehensible to them. ("what's that sound"--before they see him, his mother thinks he has a cold.) 

The pregnant moment of the opening and the theatricalization of Gregor transformed are the most successful things, overall, in the Aurora production. The quality of much of the acting, too, its immediacy, the actors' presence in the intimate confines of the Aurora's stage, make this in many ways Jackson's best effort so far. Allen McKelvey, unxious in his bank guard uniform he insists on wearing at home; Madeline Brown, who comes the closest to a stylized characterization, modulates her frozen smile with her hysterical disgust over the pest her son has become; Megan Trout's brave little sister appearing in an overstarched tutu to dance to a scratchy record for the young, self-regarding, would-be lodger Fischer (Patrick Jones, who doubles as Gregor's supervisor from work), practically goose-stepping through the parlor and craning his neck to stare at Grete like a Reichian wind-up toy--and Crowther's wide-eyed Boy Next Door quality as he tries to ungainly navigate his family's repulsion and his own guilt, caught in the body of an insect--all rise to the occasion in both featured moments and in ensemble. 

Where the production strains at the seams is with its concept, or juxtaposition of concepts, spreading the action thin in meaning between flashes of prewar Prague, Jones' funny caricature as a kind of post-Kafka harbinger of Nazi-ism, and the melange of what are now the typical, worn-out kitsch images of Middle American suburban life of the 50s, from magazine ads, TV, the movies ... "McCarthy Era America." Kafka's darkness gets whited-out, his Manneristic ambiguity loses irony, and the strange familial comedy of manners becomes a little vague, insipid, not connected to its real milieu or translated to a viable equivalent. Kafka's fantasy came from a storyteller's manner, narrating impossible events in very specific, banal circumstances. This production strains, archly, at too much--and too little. 

The acting gets stretched out too, with a rather British script spoken by characters supposed to be, in part, Middle American--but then there's McKelvey's Middle European uniform and the many period references. Each player also acts--and acts well--in a different performing style, from Crowther and Trout's takes as ingenues to Brown's confident disintegration in a series of gestures and expressions, to McKelvey's comic boot-licking unxiousness to Jones' farceur style in playing Fischer. (Fischer, rather strangely, has more riveting stylized movement than most of what Gregor the Bug is given, as does Brown, too, in a way ... ) Though they work pretty well as an ensemble, the mish-mash of styles isn't justified by any kind of theatrical--or Kafkaesque dream--logic. 

But it's notoriously hard to translate anything of Kafka's fiction to spectacle ... Stephen Berkoff had some success onstage with In the Penal Colony, Metamorphosis (starring Baryshnikov) and The Trial (with an extraordinary Anthony Sher as K); recently, Central Works produced an interesting version of The Castle, called A Man's Home--and on film, Orson Welles' The Trial translated Kafka's claustrophobic novel to an urbane, postwar black comedy--and then there's perhaps the most strangely Kafkaesque of all, Bela Tarr's movie The Werkmeister Harmonies, from a novel The Melancholy of Resistance by Laszlo Krasznahortai, not Kafka at all ... 

Metamorphosis, Tuesdays through Sundays, various times, through July 17. Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison, near Shattuck. $10-$45. 843-4822; auroratheatre,org