If you have a thing for the avant-garde in art, and the farther out the better, the new show "Kafka’s Metamorphosis" by the movement-based theater company, Synetic, should be on your must see list. If, on the other hand, you can’t quite see yourself accepting a hero who is turned into a cockroach before your very eyes, this might not be the best introduction to Synetic’s usually impressive work.
Franz Kafka’s short story of Gregor Samsa who, as the first sentence in one translation tells us, woke one morning to discover that "in his bed he had been changed to into a monstrous verminous bug," is an overwhelming metaphor for the purposelessness of life. Kafka, an early 20th century fiction writer living in Prague, wrote of a young man who was the sole support of his family trapped in a life in which he felt constricted only to have constriction become real.
Synetic, well known for highly visual adaptations of classic works in movement that seems a union of dance and athleticism, but frequently with few or no lines of dialogue, steps out of their wordless world with this adaptation in which words become as important as images. In doing so, they abandon their area of strength to concentrate on an area where they haven’t had as much success. Theater companies need to stretch in order to grow, but Synetic may have pushed just a bit too far and taken a larger step than they are ready to.
This is the second collaboration between Synetic and director/adapter Derek Goldman of Georgetown University’s Davis Performing Arts Center. Last year they mounted his adaptation of Aristophanes’ "Lysistrata" at the Davis and now they perform his "Kafka’s Metamorphosis" in the Rosslyn Spectrum.
The single act plays out on Natsu Onoda Power’s dream of a set — literally a dream brought into physical form. The majority of the set is poor Gregor’s bedroom as seen from above. What would be the back wall of the set is the floor of the bedroom, what would be the floor of the set is a sloping wall with a window through which the unfortunate hero is swept along with all the rest of the trash after his death. Next to the bed is a floor lamp jutting toward the audience which is but the most noticeable handhold for Synetic regular John Milosich to grasp as Gregor as he crawls about in what has become his cage.
Nearly as impressive as the set is the lighting by Colin K. Bills and the music by Konstantine Lortkipanidze. As is often the case at Synetic, Lortkipanidze has composed music that becomes both a soundscape, in this case augmented by the work of sound designer James Bigbee Garver, and the throbbing heartbeat of the story to which the performers synchronize their actions. The impact is greatest when the blend of sight and sound isn’t interrupted by actual speech.
For this production, however, speech becomes a key element. Goldman not only has Milosich voicing the words of the newly insectisized young man, he adds Clark Young playing the writer Franz Kafka as a character, sitting to the side describing what is going through Gregor’s mind. Synetic, when it is doing its best work, doesn’t need a narrator to give descriptions — the movement tells it all.
The supporting cast includes a number of locally prominent actors who are known for their work at more traditional companies, but are new to Synetic’s unique style. Charlotte Akin is a chipper delight as the family’s maid who has to deal with the increasing detritus in Gregor’s room. Steve Beall and Annie Houston are convincing as Gregor’s parents, more concerned over the loss of his support to their life style than his own torment. Frank Britton is suitably cavalier as Gregor’s employer, whose only concern is when he can expect his clerk to return to his duties. Caitlin Cassidy, who appeared in Goldman’s adaptation of "Lysistrata," lends her pure voice as the music in Gregor’s mind.
This is not the first time an adventurous local theater company has tried its hand at Kafka’s story. The Catalyst Theater Company staged another adaptation on Capitol Hill five years ago with Scott Fortier delivering a tremendously moving performance as Gregor without the use of prosthetics — no makeup, no shell, nothing but pure acting talent. Synetic chose to go a more "realistic" route and equipped Milosich with not only a shell but a gaggle of dangling legs and, for a while, a bug eyed helmet. The effect is to put the emphasis on what is happening to Gregor's body and not to his mind. When he sheds that shell for a body suit with exposed organs, the impact is to once again draw attention away from the inner turmoil. It makes just too much of the metaphor.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland and writes about theater for a number of national magazines. He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.