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A CurtainUp Review
The Metamorphosis
by Jerry Weinstein

Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis has been widely adapted for both stage and screen since its first publication in 1915. It endures as a portent and a sharp rebuke to the march of progress, where man himself has become both eviscerated and viscera at the hands of "the Rat Race."

Set in Prague at the turn of the 20th century, E. Thomalen has turned Kafka’s brooding work into a verse play that foregrounds the family’s shock and bourgeois discomfort. The Samsa clan are émigrés who employ a servant and epitomize a very modern sense of entitlement to upward mobility. They dote on their young daughter Grete, who is well aware this it is her brother Gregor’s wage slavery that permits her violin lessons and a chance at marrying well.

Thomalen’s original translation opens with the stage manager/narrator indicating that Gregor has just awoken into a dream. We soon find the family wrestling with the consequences of Gregor’s transmogrification into a dung beetle. Which is the more upsetting, that Gregor is now a hideous figure or that he is no longer a suitable income earner?

In this version of Metamorphosis Gregor has literally been silenced. As a cockroach, Kevin Whittinghill has the unenviable task of conveying Gregor’s agony, isolation, and finally betrayal, solely through gesture and movement, with violinist David Kornhaber as a Hassidic-bedecked Klezmer musician acting as his tonal stand-in. This is a fraught maneuver, for while passages of the music are poignant, Gregor’s centrality to the text has been fatally undermined. Francine L.Trevens has directed Thomalen text’s a bit too faithfully, recasting Gregor as mime, complete with painted-on tears. What should have been desperate cries of a death knell come off as the Dance of the Sugar Plum Faeries.

Still, the family itself makes for good fodder. We soon learn that pere Samsa’s loan to the company which, in effect, made Gregor an indentured servant, was a smokescreen. Father had embezzled a huge sum which comes in all too handy given Gregor’s terminal inability to act as breadwinner. We see mother quickly disengage as her son descends from paragon to vermin. Even Grete, who is closest to Gregor, gives up on him with only a trace of remorse. While the family emerges intact less Gregor, it is clearly shown to be a callow servant to capitalism, rather than its beneficiary.

While a reconsideration of Kafka’s Metamorphosis could not be more timely, with the conglomeration of institutions and world-wide recession, the cast does not offer the rich, complex tapestry that is demanded for these uncertain times. Despite the fact that the piece is clearly Gregor’s nightmare, the text and direction favors naturalism, rather than surrealism, muting the absurdity that is the signature of Kafka’s work. There are occasional Brechtian nods, such as the freeze-framing of action and dialogue and doubling of character roles, but this production demands a more contemporary approach. Metamorphosis is a lost opportunity, its oblique class consciousness and the family dynamic in a world built on a landfill of dysfunction. As the house lights came up, I thought back to a moment earlier in the play. Or perhaps I was just daydreaming. I heard strains of "Is that all there is?" --Peggy Lee’s pop missive to the void-- and that moment felt right. This just felt contrived.

The Metamorphosis
Written by Franz Kafka, adaptation/translation by E. Thomalen
Directed by Francine L. Treve
Cast: Kevin Whittinghill, Peter J. Coriaty, Alexis Wickwire, Loretta Guerra Woodruff, David Lamberton, Ozlem Turhal, Brandon DeSpain, Marcalan Glassberg, and David Kornhaber as violinist/Klezmer musician
Master Set Builder: Mark Hankla
Set/Costume Design: T. Silver
Running time:90 minutes with a 15-minute intermission
Jose Quintero Theater, 534 West 42nd Street (between 10th & 11th avenues) 212/206-1515
Tuesday - Saturdays at 8PM; Sundays at 6PM through February 23rd -- $32.50 .

Reviewed by Jerry Weinstein based on a February 6, 2003 performance.
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