Gisli Orn Gardarsson, Nina Dogg Filippusdottir, Kelly Hunter,
and Ingvar E. Sigurdsson in Metamorphosis
(© Eddi Jonsson)
Gisli Orn Gardarsson, Nina Dogg Filippusdottir, Kelly Hunter,
and Ingvar E. Sigurdsson in Metamorphosis
(© Eddi Jonsson)
Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis, the scarifying allegory in which traveling salesman Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to discover he's a giant insect, has been interpreted any number of ways for the stage. Now, Iceland's Vesturport Theatre in collaboration with London's Lyric Hammersmith has sent a new treatment to BAM.

While audience members totally new to the tale won't notice anything amiss -- and might even derive unalloyed pleasure from the theatrically macabre 80-minute proceedings -- Kafka partisans are likely to sense something off from the outset.

Kafka's tale starts with Samsa awakening and trying to figure out what's happened to him overnight, but this isn't how adapter-directors David Farr and Gisli Orn Gardarsson, a trained gymnast who plays Gregor, see it. In their version, Samsa's mother Lucy (Kelly Hunter), violin-playing sister Grete (Nina Dogg Filippusdottir) and father Hermann (Ingvar E. Sigurdsson) first enter the room (part of Borkur Jonsson's ingenious set) -- mechanically in time to tinkling martial music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis -- where Gregor's insect-like form is glimpsed under the covers. From then on, Gregor climbs around his room athletically -- unlike Kafka's unfailingly awkward critter.

However, as Gregor eventually loses his strength, the action is weighted more towards the three family members and a prospective boarder called Herr Fischer (Jonathan McGuinness). Unfortunately, the focus placed on these four individuals overshadow Gregor's internal struggle.

Moreover, it doesn't take long for the creators' intentions to become clear. Even before the word "exterminate" is dropped into the dialogue as a means of dealing with Gregor, the notion that this Metamorphosis is engineered as a metaphor for Nazi Germany will strike most ticket buyers. But the Prague-born Kafka wrote his novella in 1915 during the First World War, and one can be sure he didn't foresee the Holocaust. To suggest he did is to misappropriate his story.

The concept is also confusing: If the Samsas turn on Gregor, are they meant to represent Jews turning on their own, or are they meant to represent a people turning in cowardly self-defense against a segment of the population suddenly, cruelly categorized as different and destructive?

Regardless of the concept, it's clear that the idea of performing as an agile insect was too appealing for Gardarsson to reject -- and he's handed himself the opportunity to execute several impressive feats. When he first crawls out from under those white covers, he begins pulling himself hand over hand up, down and over to grips built into the set. When the drastically weakened Gregor realizes he'd better escape from his now-alien home, the shirtless and impressively muscular Gardarsson pulls off a couple Cirque du Soleil-like turns with the help of a lengthy maroon drapery. Meanwhile, the other actors acquit themselves well without having to scale the scenery.