One reason the term “Kafkaesque’’ gets bruited about so much is that Franz Kafka gave form not just to his anxieties but to ours.
Perhaps nowhere in the author’s work is this more arrestingly true than in “The Metamorphosis,’’ his 1915 novella about the tragic figure of Gregor Samsa, who awakens one morning to discover that he has been transformed overnight into a giant insect.
Small wonder that Freudians have had a field day with this dread-soaked allegory. Kafka tapped into a psychiatrist’s couch worth of semiconscious fears: of sudden and inexplicable change leading to humiliation, rejection, and social isolation; of not being understood or even recognizable; of the obliteration of the self — literally losing one’s humanity — in the face of mechanization and bureaucracy.
Those sensations and states of mind are hauntingly evoked in “Metamorphosis,’’ an entrancing coproduction by Iceland’s Vesturport Theatre and London’s Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, now at the Paramount Center Mainstage, presented by ArtsEmerson.
Gisli Örn Gardarsson, who teamed up with David Farr to adapt Kafka’s novella and direct “Metamorphosis,’’ portrays Gregor, and he is riveting, from surprising start to heartbreaking finish. Gardarsson wears no costume or mask; indeed he’s in a gray business suit for roughly the first half of the play, then shirtless. Gregor’s transformation into a ghastly insect takes place in our imaginations, abetted by Gardarsson’s acrobatic physicality and tormented facial expressions, and by the horrified, and ultimately cruel, reactions of his family.
The spare but evocative music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is an indispensable component to the production’s dreamlike atmosphere, helping to underscore Gregor’s anguish, terror, and loneliness. On the first level of Borkur Jonsson’s two-tiered set is the Samsa’s plainly furnished dining room, where Gregor’s father, mother and sister drink tea at the beginning of the play, the very picture of well-ordered domesticity.
But on the second level, in Gregor’s room, the geometry of existence has come unglued. Everything has been tilted 90 degrees, so that the floor is now a wall, with Gregor’s bed standing in an upright position. During the 85 minutes of “Metamorphosis,’’ Gardarsson’s Gregor extends himself straight out from that wall, hangs upside down from the ceiling, scuttles down the stairs and perches on a banister, and curls up miserably on the bed. For a few moments of joy, he bounces up and down and turns somersaults.
It doesn’t last. This “Metamorphosis’’ is faithful to Kafka’s pitiless view of human nature. In one scene, Gregor’s family literally turn their backs on him, seated in three chairs at the corner of the Paramount stage while Gregor crouches forlornly on the banister. The family’s fourth chair — Gregor’s chair — is gone because the father, Herman (Ingvar E. Sigurdsson) had earlier hurled it out the window.
When Gregor speaks, his father, mother, and sister wince and cover their ears. He is speaking normally, but what they hear are horrible sounds.
Even though Gregor had been working himself to the bone as a traveling salesman in order to repay the family’s debts, Herman responds only with revulsion to the change in his son. The senior Samsa strikes Gregor and goes so far as to spit on him. Gregor’s mother, Lucy (Edda Arnljotsdottir), feels periodic spasms of compassion, but she retreats into helplessness and abandons her son.
His sister Greta’s heart is the last to harden. At first, Greta (Selma Bjornsdottir) brings Gregor food and treats him with kindness. She still sees her beloved brother in there somewhere. But she becomes impatient with him. Poignantly, Gregor praises Greta’s violin-playing, urges her not to abandon her dream of attending a conservatory, and voices guilt over the fact that Greta has to work in a department store to help make ends meet. She cannot understand a word he says and grows angrier and angrier. When a store supervisor and prospective boarder (Vikingur Kristjansson) with whom Greta is smitten is about to arrive at the Samsa home, she tells Gregor: “Tonight, you do not exist.’’ Then, in a harrowing scene that plays out in silhouette, she proves it.
No longer able to be the breadwinner, Gregor is an embarrassment, a social liability, an abomination who must be expelled from the family. But this memorable production makes clear that the most chilling transformation in “Metamorphosis’’ is not Gregor’s, but theirs.