All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Exquisitely inventive choreography, and the right tone of storytelling, in a stylized expressionistic setting combine to make Rebecca Wright’s production of “The Metamorphosis” for Quintessence Theatre Group an evocative experience laced with comedy, grotesquerie, physicality, and, in appropriate measure, heart.
Even before we see Gregor Samsa’s total transformation from man to cockroach, or in Steven Berkoff’s adaptation of the Franz Kafka novella, a giant dung beetle, Wright has Gregor slither towards us, actress Kristen Bailey emerging, as if on a conveyor belt, on the backs of waiting castmates, who lay perpendicular to Bailey, so their limbs flail nervously, like the thin wobbly legs of an insect would.
Kafka’s graphic allegory bristles with life in Wright’s staging. The Quintessence production covers every theme in a concise, meaningful, so you can see how a man might be made to feel like a bug, how an uncompromising class system forces obedience and dread of disapproval from a superior, how family dynamics can change as situations do, and how a son or brother can be dismissed for what he’s become rather than pitied or embraced as a member of the family.
Gregor Samsa’s plight firmly symbolizes the way a meek, put-upon, powerless person may come to feel about himself when he or she has to commit to many responsibilities and answer to many bosses while not having time or occasion for a life of his or own. Gregor must wake at 4 a.m. each morning to report to warehouse at 5 so he can be on a train by 6 as a travelling salesman for a firm to which his father is indebted. He can be sent to any corner of a unnamed country one may assume is pre-invasion Czechoslovakia, and either spends a lonely night at a hotel or trudges home at 10 p.m. to drink some milk fortified by bits of bread his sister, Greta, stays awake to give him.
Gregor’s family relies on him as the sole wage earner. His father claims to be too crippled and too old to work. It would be unseemly for his mother or sister to labor outside the home, although each considers it as “The Metamorphosis” proceeds. In addition to his father’s debt, Gregor has quotas he must maintain for his company. The chief clerk and others have no tolerance for illness, tardiness, or the hardship and inconvenience of travel. In the rare instance he finds time for leisure, Gregor enjoys doing fretwork. The one object of beauty in his small back room of the Samsa apartment is a picture of a stylish woman in fur Gregor cut from a magazine and placed in a frame he made by hand.
Knowing all of this, one wonders that Gregor took so long to become physically what he envisions himself to be within society, a creature to be ordered, shunned, frightened, loathed, badgered, kicked around, taken for granted, stamped on, and killed.
Kafka and Berkoff take their time in unfolding Gregor’s complete evolution. The physical change happens quite quickly enough. It’s announced in the first line of Kafka’s story and the first scene in Wright’s production. All that leads to Gregor’s metamorphosis and all that stems from it is the meat of Kafka, Berkoff, and Wright’s work, and they all do a brilliantly creative job in bringing Gregor’s tale from the literary page, to the dramatic script, to the stage.
The Quintessence production is creative, evocative, involving, and moving. It employs many elements, from monochrome set pieces and props that look like have been made from roughly molded papier-maché or lacquered packing tape to deft gymnastic feats that make you admire Wright’s cast as much for its strength and dexterity as for its fine acting and characterizations.
Kristen Bailey is especially impressive as she climbs walls, negotiates the flimsiest of toeholds, and hangs suspended from precarious ledges. Bailey must have spent months training at rock climbing arcades to hone her movements into something so lithe and yet so lizardlike. The opening transformation is not the only time Wright’s trusty troupe is called upon to animate Gregor in all of his beetlely stealth. Each time the group motion to bring Gregor to insect life is beautifully timed and physically adroit, so you can almost feel the combination of shame, dread, pity, and revulsion the Samsa family experiences when thinking about or encountering their transformed Gregor.
The Samsas, in their daily life, as they discuss and worry about Gregor, go about their business while trying to ignore him, or make plans to resume their lives and restore their livelihood without Gregor, are like characters you see in Eastern European cartoons or movies from the mid-Soviet era when everyone is visibly wary of authority and scared about how any move they make will be interpreted. Once they can’t be dependent on Gregor’s industry and sacrificial sense of obligation, the Samsas snap into being more motivated and resourceful. Kafka and Berkoff keenly show how eventually people will learn to take care of themselves when their meal ticket disappears. Even the father, who has complained of illness, disability, and advanced age as a reason for not working.
Of course, the more self-sufficient the Samsas become, the more they find Gregor, who can’t communicate intelligibly and who becomes ever more beetle-like, a nuisance and an embarrassment. As Gregor retreats verbally and physically, he is considered less and less the human he once was, let alone the brother and son who spent 18 working hours a day toiling for their upkeep.
Wright makes remarkable use of the Quintessence stage to show the recoiling and reintegration of the Samsas. Colin McIlvane’s set, besides making climbing room for Bailey, had several platforms against the stage-left wall that represents the Samsa kitchen. There the various family members perch, sometimes in fear or revulsion at Gregor, sometimes to make declarations of a new beginning or a new resolve from a height. The platforms are effective in making it look as if the family is always backed up in a corner and confused about where or how to move. Motion becomes freer and more expansive as family members acknowledge their fate and take action to earn their living and maintain their livelihood.
The perches are also used creatively on the morning when Gregor first realizes he is not quite himself. Upon letting himself out of his bedroom by turning a key with his mouth, which causes a brown fluid to emanate from his mandibles, the family retreats to the platforms while the chief clerk of the company for which Gregor travels leaps to a chair for refuge. Alan Brincks is particular good at both showing shock and shouting recriminations at Gregor and his family during this scene.
McIlvane’s set again proves useful and versatile by having sets of windows on all three sides of the Samsa apartment. This underscores the family’s paranoia that neighbors and others are looking in to catch a sight of the indisposed Gregor. Wright exploits the windows for great comic effect as she has Brincks’s chief clerk peer through each one as he flees in a combination of terror and rage from the Samsa abode.
Normality cannot return to the Samsa home while Gregor looms about it, occasionally making an appearance to plead for food or solace, to the horror and dismay of his family. One fatal visit from his room to the living quarters causes the Samsa to lose boarders, who blithely accepted that the Samsa kept an exotic pet in their back room, but who were repulsed to the point of being sick when they saw the pet, Gregor, in the flesh.
Kafka covered many bases in his story, and Berkoff found a sensitive way to dramatize every situation and detail Kafka designed.
The Quintessence production is cunning in setting up the evolution of Gregor’s transformation and its transformative effect on his family. Wright was inspired to cast the convincingly androgynous Kristen Bailey as Gregor (a part originated on Broadway by Mikhail Baryshnikov).
Berkoff’s script includes passages, most in flashback, of Gregor before his metamorphosis. In a shirt with too big a collar for her neck, and a suit and black necktie, Berkoff is the picture of a sweet young man who is willing to do everything everyone asks of him but complains of being tired. The scenes of Gregor as a man create great sympathy for the character. You resent the Samsa’s increasing neglecting of him, even when you know they have no choice and must move on, because Bailey has created such a congenial and likeable portrait of him. The untransformed Gregor’s scenes with Greta, played charmingly by Gracie Martin, show a strong filial bonding as well as young man who appreciates the little kindness and warmth he gets from his sister and mother.
In time, Gregor may be shooed into a corner of his room, or sensitively keep himself under his bed when Greta enters so he won’t appall her, or live with a rotting apple in his back because he has been rejected by the family he once supported. These passages are especially sad in the Quintessence production because Bailey makes you care so much for Gregor and leads you to realize his metamorphosis is far from deserved. Also, in Berkoff’s script, even more than in Kafka’s novella, Gregor retains his sense of identity and humanity for months after he wakes to find himself turned into a giant bug. Bailey generates enough empathy that we are glad Gregor perceives himself as a young man, even as he enjoys climbing walls as an insect. Conversely, we are distressed when Gregor is abused or left to starve and decay.
Kafka came up with an extreme image of how a man who works himself to distraction to support his family and fulfill his professional duties begins to regard himself, in Gregor’s case so much his self-image is manifested into a grotesque metamorphosis. Berkoff’s adaptation serves Kafka faithfully and gives great dramatic texture to the Czech writer’s story. Wright’s funny, physical, and touching production makes the most of all both writers make available to her. Every Kafkaesque notion is addressed intelligently and creatively. Wright’s expressionistic staging brings home all “The Metamorphosis” is about and becomes a fine theatrical essay on extreme self-effacement, family dynamics, and eventual reaction to a crisis.
Kristen Bailey, looking ever so much like a naïve and dedicated young man, embodies all that Gregor symbolizes. She plays the literal aspects of the character, and the inner workings of a person beat down by unceasing demands, with equal aplomb. Her beseeching looks touch your heart. Her gymnastic climbs just plain astound.
Gracie Martin conveys Greta’s bigheartedness and unwavering love for her brother. There’s great tenderness in the scenes between Greta and Gregor before his transformation, and respectful regard for Gregor when he is first afflicted with his change.
Martin is all sincerity. You believe her love for Gregor. You also believe it when Greta matures and opts to seek her own life and living, a circumstance that affects her attitude towards Gregor.
Anita Holland cannot let go of a mother’s regard for her child, even as she becomes more pragmatic during the course of “The Metamorphosis.” Mrs. Samsa holds the family together, and Holland deftly shows a woman who will more and more opt for practicality and survival as Gregor’s malaise goes from days into years.
Douglas Hara has a crustiness about him as Mr. Samsa, who is spoiled in his way by Gregor’s uncomplaining willingness to work unstintingly to pay off his debt and by the solicitousness he receives from his wife and daughter who take his illness and infirmity seriously, more seriously than is warranted or merited.
Alan Brincks is excellently officious as the pompous, suspicious chief clerk who is convinced Gregor is faking illness to cadge a day off from his company. Lee Minora scores as the spokesperson for the lodgers who run from the Samsa premises when they catch sight of Gregor. Julia Frey agilely joins with Brincks and Minora to help create the image of Gregor as an insect.
Katherine Fritz’s suit for Gregor is perfect. It makes Bailey look like such a proper, reliable man. Fritz also does a fine job in conceiving the staining of Gregor’s white shirt as he wallows more and more in his uncleaned, food-strewn insect lair.
Adriano Shaplin’s sound design adds to the ominousness of Berkoff’s play. Maria Shaplin’s lighting allows Wright to create some witty scenes through the Samsa windows.
“The Metamorphosis” runs through Sunday, March 1, in a Quintessence Theatre Group production at the Sedgwick Theatre, 7137 Germantown Avenue, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 18 and Thursday, Feb. 26, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb, 28, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $34 to $27 and can be obtained by calling 215-987-4450 or by visiting www.quintessencetheatre.org.
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