There’s no insect costume, no expensive special effects à la “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” But the Vesturport Theatre-Lyric Hammersmith coproduction of Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” beginning performances Wednesday on the Paramount Center Mainstage, manages to be off the wall nonetheless.
Anyone who’s taken high school English should remember the basics of Kafka’s story, first published in 1915: Salesman Gregor Samsa wakes up one day to find himself inexplicably transformed into a giant insect, generally rendered as a cockroach. His parents and sister recoil at the sight and eventually turn against him.
This “Metamorphosis,” presented here by ArtsEmerson, takes advantage of the gymnastic talents of Vesturport actor Gisli Örn Gardarsson — who, with David Farr, also adapted and directs the piece — to render a disorienting yet simple vision of Kafka’s tale.
Downstairs on Börkur Jónsson’s bi-level set, the bland Samsa living area. Upstairs, in Gregor’s room?
“He’s dressed normally, but with our design, his room is rotated 90 degrees,” so that the floor becomes the back wall, says Farr, who was the artistic director of London’s Lyric Hammersmith from 2005-09 and is now an associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. “The challenge is, you’re defying gravity. It took a long time to figure out, very precisely, very carefully, how can he sit normally on the chair when the chair is actually on the wall, how can he stand normally on the floor when the floor is actually the wall.”
With the change in perspective, Farr says, Gregor “seems strange, but he’s completely normal. And that strange normality is really important.”
As a teenage gymnast, Gardarsson says, he was part of the Icelandic national team. That the role would require such
athleticism would probably surprise Kafka, but it’s essential that this production’s Gregor Samsa is in good shape.
“I’m in essence hanging upside down for an hour, so I need to build up stamina to make it seem effortless, to be able to focus on the acting,” says Gardarsson.
That should mean lots of gym time for the actor before each new run of shows, but he mocks his own laziness. He intends to do lots of gymnastics and hit the trampoline ahead of time, he says, “but to be honest, I force myself through the first three or four shows and then it’s all as usual.”
Asked if the performance is harder for him now that he’s 38, Gardarsson jokes that Icelanders don’t age, then says the role “has always been ridiculously damn hard.”
Vesturport is an edgy, loosely knit Icelandic company, named for the Reykjavik street where a handful of recent theater grads started putting on shows in a former electrical shed in 2001. In 2006, after Farr saw a London run of the company’s circus-
inspired “Romeo and Juliet,” he suggested to Gardarsson that they tackle Kafka’s bleak, absurd, modernist masterpiece.
“The play is apparently about a man turned into a bug, but it is also about the metamorphosis of a family into a group of monsters, this very ordinary family,” says Farr. “It’s hugely entertaining at first, because of the theatricality and the daring of it all, but actually it’s a very sad story.”
Their adaptation of the tale was affected by reflections on a particular evil that Kafka, who died in 1924, did not know. While touring a play through Europe just before starting work on “Metamorphosis,” Gardarsson happened to have visited Auschwitz.
“I was hugely affected by it,” he says. “And then when you know that Kafka was a Jew and his three sisters died in the camps and how this book in a way [foreshadows] what was going to happen, you can’t help but include that in your thinking.”
Kafka of course had no idea what was going to happen when he wrote “Metamorphosis,” says Farr, who has German-Jewish roots himself.
The story “was mainly about his family and his terrifying father,” Farr says, “but of course being a Jew in Prague, you were living in a ghettoized situation. They were an affluent family, they weren’t poor, but there were restrictions placed on them, and that paranoia feeds into the story: the sensation that you don’t quite belong in your family, you don’t quite belong in your society, and that the society could at any moment choose to reject you.”
Kafka, like some other artists of his day, tapped into a wider malaise resulting from industrialization and new ideas such as Darwinism, Farr says, an alienation which can also be seen in works like Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”
“It just reflects . . . a worldview that nothing is certain anymore and we are capable of terrible destruction, we’re not in control of our own technology, and we’re sort of alienated from our society. And Freud told us we’re not in control of our deepest fears, so we’re capable of anything,” Farr says. “Kafka — another European Jew like Freud — is sort of the perfect embodiment of all that. These little nightmares he creates are the most potent little gems of horror.
“They’re also very funny, of course,” he adds. “To me that makes it more real.”
“Metamorphosis” features original music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who had already composed original songs for Vesturport’s “Woyzeck.” Gardarsson says the collaboration on this show worked mainly by trading music files over e-mail. The final piece Cave and Ellis wrote for “Metamorphosis” is a song that plays over the last moments of the performance.
“I called [Cave] two days before the premiere, and said it would be really great with a song at the very end,” Gardarsson says, “and they recorded the song on a laptop computer in their hotel room.”
The production premiered in London in 2006, went to Reykjavik in 2007, and has played cities around the world since then. Neither Gardarsson nor Farr expected to still be touring the show seven years later, but they’re not entirely surprised, either.
“I had a feeling it was going to be good,” Farr says. “I remember the first time we showed it in the rehearsal room. We had a set made for the rehearsal room, because we had to, and we showed it to just a couple of producers at the Lyric. The piece ended, and then we had that wonderful moment where there was total silence for about 20 seconds, and you just sort of knew.”