One of the few quiet moments in the original film version of The Producers comes fairly early on, when the camera settles in on a bleary-eyed Leo Bloom and Max Bialystock. They are at end of an all-night play-reading marathon in search of the perfect flop. At one point, Max picks up a script and begins to read aloud about a character named Gregor Samsa, who awakes one morning to discover he's turned into a giant cockroach. "Too good," says Max sadly, tossing the manuscript aside.
This is what any theatrical adaptation of Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis, now through July 17 at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, is up against. The short novel is revered as a masterpiece of 20th-century literature, written by a tortured artist who died before his time. As for the novel's theatrical adaptation, even an unproduced, fictional version from 1968 got the seal of approval from Mel Brooks, via none other than Zero Mostel. That's a lot of legend to live up to.
For the most part, the current production at the Aurora rises to the occasion, although director Mark Jackson's decision to set the play in McCarthy-era America rather than 1930s Europe, as adaptors David Farr and Gísli Örn Gardarsson intended, is a major misstep. Still, with its solid performances by a tight quintet of actors and a clever set by Nina Ball, Metamorphosis is certainly the most entertaining play you'll ever see about abject alienation and the futility of life. Along with the rest of the audience, I laughed a lot.
Mother (Madeline H.D. Brown), Grete (Megan Trout), Father (Allen McKelvey), Gregor (Alexander Crowther)
As the play opens, Mother (Madeline H.D. Brown), and her daughter, Grete (Megan Trout), are busying themselves with breakfast until Father (Allen McKelvey) notices a pair of shoes on the floor. They belong to his son, Gregor (Alexander Crowther), who lies barefoot on a metal frame bed that's perched on a severely raked attic room behind and above the family's common quarters. This smart staging device gives us clear views of both rooms, allowing the play's actions to happen throughout in parallel.
The design of the bedroom is also a terrific vehicle for Crowther's transformed character. As an insect, Crowther scurries and skitters about, splaying his toes and gnarling his fingers to suggest exoskeleton, even though we see flesh. At times he literally climbs the walls. He can hear his family and comprehend the sounds they make, but his responses to their inquires about why he has overslept and missed his train sound like so much gnashing and scratching to them.
Gregor, we learn, is the family's sole breadwinner, so the fact that he's not at work is a matter of grave concern to his parents, especially his father, who has repaid his son's industriousness with a warped sense of entitlement (if Mother gets most of the play's funniest lines, Father gets to say Kafkaesque things like "We should all be free to speak without thinking."). But Gregor is not himself today, as the family tells Gregor's boss, Stietl (Patrick Jones), who has come to the Samsa's to get to the bottom of Gregor's tardiness.
Right away, the 1950s veneer that Jackson had hoped to establish via the suburban mannerisms of Gregor's family and Christine Crook's period costumes are shattered. This Stietl fellow is just too arch, too sinister for the era Jackson is trying to force him to live in. He acts like a brutal fascist bureaucrat doing his job with just a bit too much enthusiasm in the lead-up to World War II, which, of course, is exactly how Farr and Gardarsson wrote Stietl in their adaptation. The time-period disconnect is even worse when a suitor of Grete's named Fischer (also played by Jones) appears later in the play. Did Jackson think that setting Metamorphosis in '50s American would make it more accessible to provincial Berkeley audiences? The choice is truly baffling.
During the course of the 75-minute, one-act play, we admire Grete's attempts to communicate with her brother, shake our heads at Mother's sorrow for the loss of "her baby" and grimace at the sight of Father shooing away his son with a rolled up newspaper. But it's Crowther's performance that carries Metamorphosis. He's awkward in his skin, articulating his neck and limbs in inhuman ways. We see him for what he was, a man, but we believe that the other characters in the play see him as a monster because of Crowther's physicality. I think Zero would have approved.
Metamorphosis runs through July 17, 2011 at the Aurora Theatre. For tickets and information visit auroratheatre.org.
Photos: David Allen.