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The Metamorphosis from Kafka

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis begins as the story's central figure, Gregor Samsa, becomes a giant insect. Stories seldom start in a more over-the-top, theatrical way, so it's understandable that E. Thomalen would see this story as ideal for a theatre piece. But in presenting Thomalen's all-verse adaptation of The Metamorphosis at the Jose Quintero Theatre, something was missed.

Gregor's story is probably familiar to most: His family depended on the income he received as a traveling salesman, and is almost forced into destitution upon his transformation. Yet, along the way, they change as well, becoming more independent and capable even as their former source of support becomes completely reliant on the love and care they become less willing and able to provide for him. A rich subject, The Metamorphosis could be effectively explored theatrically in any number of ways, the way chosen by Thomalen - to focus primarily on the troubles of Gregor's family - clearly among them.

But in such an approach, how would Gregor be represented? Thomalen's solution is both obvious and effective, having the actor portraying him (Kevin Whittinghill) never utter a single spoken line, with whatever insect-like speech he can muster portrayed by Klezmer-like violin sounds being produced by the Hasidic musician (David Kornhaber) who always accompanies Gregor. It's strange, then, that all things considered, Whittinghill gives one of the most convincing performances in the play, his movements stylized, and his overall manner one of the way a cockroach might impersonate a human. He's effective.

So is Jessica Greenberg, who plays Gregor's sister, Grete, his caregiver and ultimately an agent of his destruction. She manages to strike a winning balance between the love and frustration that imbues her character, and alone of the actors with speaking roles is able to find a way to exist in both the "real world" of theatrical emotion and the heightened reality of Kafka's other-worldly, cautionary tale.

Yet, isn't this backward? In a story seen from the perspective of Gregor's family, for the insect to be completely human and his sister to come across so well is to disavow the very elements of the work on which Thomalen (and Kafka) saw fit to focus.

Director Francine L. Trevens compounds the problem by allowing inexplicably broad performances from the actors playing Gregor's parents (Peter J. Coriaty and Loretta Guerra Woodruff). With slow, almost anemic speech patterns and almost indicative natures from the play's first moment to its last, they come across as the most unreal, inhuman characters in the play. It's easier to forgive the almost buffoonish performances of Hugh Dunnet, Brandon DeSpain, and Marcalan Glassberg as the three boarders the Samsas take in, and Luna Turk as the cleaning woman - their actions would not reflect well on them as viewed from the eyes of Gregor's family. But the actions Thomalen defined don't suggest Gregor's family would see themselves the way they have been portrayed here.

As such, it becomes difficult to get inside this version of The Metamorphosis. One may examine the story's basic elements and interpret them in any way (Gregor sacrificed his humanity to such a degree that he had no recourse to become an insect, etc.), but it's unnecessary for those familiar with the source; this production gives little new insight into the human condition that Kafka's original novella did not provide. Those unfamiliar with the source may not understand what all the fuss is about, and Whittinghill and Greenberg, for their strengths, can't change this Metamorphosis into something that works.

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The Metamorphosis from Kafka
Through January 26
Jose Quintero Theatre, 534 West 42nd Street between 10th and 11th Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: (212) 206-1515