HOUSE OF BUGGIN: Alexander Crowther (foreground) is Gregor Samsa, a humand-turned-creature, in the Aurora Theatre Company production of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Gregor’s family (rear, from left), Grete (Megan Troute), Mother (Madeline H.D. Brown) and Father (Allen McKelvey), is horrified by the transformation. Below: Patrick Jones (back to camera) is a new lodger in the Samsa household, and he does not appreciate fine dancing…or monster brothers. Photos by David Allen
You’ve heard that old trope about intense pressure turning a lump of coal into a diamond. Well what if that kind of pressure is applied to a human being? In Franz Kafka’s opinion, the pressure of modern society will turn a person into, well, something horrific. Perhaps a cockroach or some other loathsome vermin, but a monster nonetheless. It’s a sad and scary vision, one that is realized to its fullest potential in the Aurora Theatre Company production of Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
Director Mark Jackson is something of a name brand in the Bay Area. You know his shows are going to be original, compelling and rigorously produced. He’s a writer/director (occasionally actor) whose work you simply do not miss. The world of Kafka would seem to be a playground for Jackson’s mighty theatrical imagination, and it’s true. Jackson’s Metamorphosis is as unsettling as it is poignant, as beautifully performed as it is fun to watch.
Using an adaptation by David Farr and Gísli Örn Gardarsson, Jackson creates a 20th-century monster mash with existential underpinnings. He sets the action in a stereotypical 1950s household – perfectly appointed furniture supporting perfectly appointed people. Dad’s in his cardigan and rules the household with an iron fist. Mom’s in her best Donna Reed dress with matching apron. Daughter Grete is bright, blond and braided. All is well in this tightly wound, hard-smiling house until one particular morning.
Older brother Gregor has not come down from his room and is clearly late for work – a real no-no because he’s the household breadwinner ever since dad’s business went belly up. What’s up with Gregor? Perhaps he’s under the weather, or, under the pressure of supporting his family with a traveling salesman job that’s killing him, he has turned overnight into something horrific and insect-like.
Yes indeed, Gregor is not himself. He’s literally crawling the walls of his bedroom. When he speaks, we can understand him (and empathize with him completely), but no one else can. All they hear is an unsettling screech. So much for the ideal family in the ideal house in the ideal world.
Jackson’s cast is so sharp, so precise and so electrifying that the show’s 90 minutes just fly by. Alexander Crowther is Gregor, and he’s just astounding as he makes like Spider-man (though without injury or incident, at least on opening night) on the walls of his bedroom and the frame of his bed. It’s an intensely physical performance to be sure, but the real marvel of it is how Crowther (entering his third year in ACT’s MFA program) makes Gregor so compassionate and so deeply pained. He crawls around the extraordinary set by Nina Ball, which renders the upper half of the set as Gregor’s nightmarish world, all vertiginous and askew, with sturdy walls just right for climbing.
Even though we see Gregor behaving like a giant bug, the real horror of his situation is registered in the faces and bodies of his family. Dad (Allen McKelvey) is the most horrified – his shame at making his son carry the weight of the family probably has something to do with that. Mom (Madeline H.D. Brown) can hardly stifle a scream each time she sees her transformed son. She faints and she turns away, painting a rigid smile on her face that turns her, ironically, into something of a monster as well.
Grete (the extraordinary Megan Trout) is the only family member with enough courage beneath her compassion to interact with Gregor.
Keeping up appearances is a given for the Samsas, and this latest twist only makes that effort more challenging, especially when visited by Gregor’s demanding boss and a potential lodger now that the family income has gone the way of the insect. Both of these visitors from the outside are played by Patrick Jones, a pitch perfect character actor. His Mr. Fischer, the boarder, is especially hilarious given the pretentious oaf’s posturing about how much he detests pretension.
This is ultimately quite a sad tale (and no matter how American they try to make it, this still feels German), but Jackson and his crew deliver it with such energy and such discipline that it’s also suffused with the joy of performing something so bold and juicy. Transform yourself into an audience member and experience this Metamorphosis.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Metamorphosis continues through July 17 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$45. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org for information.