THE METAMORPHOSIS: Quintessence Brings Kafka to Mount Airy

by Ellen Wilson Dilks

As part of the 100th anniversary commemoration of Kafka’s seminal work of fiction, Quintessence Theatre Group is presenting a stage version of THE METAMORPHOSIS. Rebecca Wright directs Stephen Berkoff’s adaptation, which will be onstage at the Sedgewick Theatre on Germantown Avenue through March 1.

Franz Kafka is regarded by many as one of the most influential authors of the last century; his works are filled with themes of isolation, familial discord, characters battling bureaucracy and mystical transformations, as well as physical and psychological brutality. Born in Prague on July 3, 1883 to a German-speaking Jewish family, Kafka trained as a lawyer, but worked for an insurance company. He began writing in his spare time, but soon felt it was his true calling; subsequently he began resenting the time he had to spend on his day job. Kafka’s relationship with his father was quite troubled and complicated, much like the main character in THE METAMORPHOSIS. The fallout from this family dynamic is evident in other works as well. The author was also conflicted about his Jewish heritage; he claimed that he felt religion had little to do with him, however scholars argue that it influenced his writing. As the socio-political climate in Prague at the time was troubled, it is understandable. The predominant language of the area was Czech, and there was a tangible divide between Czech and German-speaking people—with both groups attempting to strengthen their national identity. The Jewish community often found itself in between the two sentiments, naturally raising questions about a place to which one belongs. Kafka himself was fluent in both languages, considering German his mother tongue.

It is under this influence that Kafka produced his most well-known—and controversial—work: THE METAMORPHOSIS. Successful travelling salesman Gregor Samsa awakes one morning to discover that he has inexplicably transformed into some sort of insect-like creature overnight. The sole breadwinner in his family, Gregor worries as to how he will maintain his job. And his family’s reaction doesn’t help…

Berkoff’s adaptation has a streak of dark humor running through it that is most interesting. We are given a sense of Gregor’s plodding life prior to his transformation, as well as the burden his family has placed on him. We also see the oppressiveness of authority in the city. It’s no wonder Gregor feels trapped; the viewer senses that his physical transformation may be a manifestation of the pressures in his life. Berkoff’s version is rife with movement and physicality; Wright, aided by an excellent design team, renders the piece beautifully. She creates wonderful tableaus throughout, while giving her actors an environment that defines the word “play.” Eliciting finely detailed performances from the ensemble, Wright draws the viewer further and further into Kafka’s skewed world. And Quintessence’s intimate space is a perfect venue for this inventive and engrossing piece of theatre.

Gregor’s family reacts to his new circumstances in an odd, disconnected way, more worried about the effect on them than on him. Douglas Hara perfectly inhabits Mr. Samsa, a weak and bitter man who briefly rallies to support his family only to fail yet again. Although not a likeable character, Hara imbues him with a certain redemptive quality that allows us to understand and empathize with him to an extent—not an easy task. Anita Holland gives us a Mrs. Samsa who is so overwhelmed by life’s hard knocks that all she can do is repeat her daily routines in order to hold on. Holland shows us a loving but ineffectual woman, gaining our sympathies without being overly maudlin. As younger sister Greta, Gracie Martin portrays a true innocent with such understated charm one instantly loves her. She carefully and subtly shows us Greta’s growing maturity and strength as the play unfolds. Alan Brinks is suitably buttoned-up and overbearing as Gregor’s boss, while Julia Frey gives us elegance personified as the “Lady in Fur” Gregor has placed on his wall. Lee Minora brings a terrific bit of deadpan comedy to her turn as the Samsa’s Cleaning Woman. These three then band together to give hilarious performances as the Samsa lodgers. And I do mean “band together.” The three actors are literally physically entwined for much of their time onstage.

Finally we come to Gregor. Clearly this is a demanding role. When the lights come up at the start of the performance, we see a trim young man standing before us who recites the opening sentence of Kafka’s novella. If one has not looked at the program beforehand, they will not realize that Gregor is being played by a woman. Kristen Bailey is riveting; she totally inhabits both the male persona and the creature’s as well. Berkoff’s adaptation relies heavily on movement for all involved, but Gregor’s physicality as the creature is particularly demanding. Bailey spends the bulk of the 70 minutes either contorted in some manner or climbing the walls of the set. Very little make-up or costume change is employed, yet Bailey completely conveys the grotesqueness of this bug-like creature. The audience is utterly engrossed and empathetic towards Gregor’s plight throughout.

Wright’s staging is captivating and inventive. Every moment of THE METAMORPHOSIS is filled with meaning and nuance. Quintessence’s Mission Statement says they are “dedicated to the performance and adaptation of epic works of classic literature and drama for the contemporary stage, which ignites the mind through the power of the actor, design and spoken word.” Such was definitely the case for me. Not only did the well-timed and perfectly executed performances of life’s mundane tasks elicit new ways of looking at how we let ourselves get into ruts, but experiencing Gregor’s struggle trapped in the creature’s form caused me to think about changes time and life have wrought to my own body. Due to injuries, I am no longer capable of doing a lot of basic things; I personally fully related to Gregor. And I wondered if any others in the audience felt as I did.

The tech work supporting THE METAMORPHOSIS is top-notch as well. Colin McIlvaine has given the actors a unique “playground” in his ecru toned set where furniture is part of the structure and things are at odd angles, as well as slightly frayed. Maria Shaplin lights the Samsa’s world to create the right eerie moods and place focus where needed, while Katherine Fritz has created period appropriate costumes that still manage to give the ensemble total freedom of movement. Finally, there is Adriano Shaplin’s evocative soundscape that creates a pitch-perfect mood for the evening.

This was my first visit to Quintessence and I thank them for a truly fulfilling theatre experience. I strongly recommend that you not miss this production, it is well worth the trip to Mt. Airy. You will be utterly entertained while you’re being intellectually uplifted.

by Franz Kafka
Adapted for the Stage by Steven Berkoff
Directed by Rebecca Wright
February 4—March 1, 2015
Quintessence Theatre Group
@ The Sedgewick Theatre
7137 Germantown Avenue
Mt. Airy, PA 19119

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