GreyZelda Theatre Group

at Stage Left Theatre

Most people get Franz Kafka’s 1915 story wrong. They think “Metamorphosis” is a dark, serious, solemn work, when in fact it’s funny, albeit in a dark, serious way. When Kafka first read the story to his friends, they reportedly laughed until their sides ached.

And I laughed out loud during the opening scene of GreyZelda Theatre Group’s extraordinary adaptation of Kafka’s tale, when the whole cast–dressed in black tights and T-shirts–slowly transformed themselves into insects. The sight of all these people arching their backs, stretching their limbs out like feelers, and hopping awkwardly struck me as funny and sad at once, communicating that we are all, despite our pretensions, mere creatures. The ensuing 18 scenes were less dancelike, more theatrical, and less comical, but the smile never left my face: over and over this young company revealed the beauty, wit, and gorgeous complexity of Kafka’s work.

Many think of “Metamorphosis” as the surreal tale of an unfortunate young man, Gregor Samsa, who’s turned into an insect. But the physical expressiveness of Chris Riter in the role gives Samsa an unusually figurative quality: his twisting, turning, writhing, and skittering around the stage suggest that Samsa may be someone who’s severely mentally ill–who believes he’s an insect–or who’s suffering from a debilitating physical disease.

The last stage version of “Metamorphosis” in Chicago–Lookingglass Theatre Company’s 2000 production of Steven Berkoff’s adaptation–also hinted that there’s more to Kafka’s narrative if you read between the lines. But Lookingglass’s take on the story was narrow and condescending: we were invited to pity–from a safe distance–a poor commercial traveler unable to make a living because he’s been transformed into a giant bug. It’s the sort of pity the affluent might feel from behind the walls of their gated communities for poor folks.

By contrast the GreyZelda adaptation makes us part of Samsa’s world. Staged in the round in the intimate confines of the Stage Left space, on a nearly empty playing area cut in half by a weblike net, this production instantly conveys claustrophobia. And that feeling only increases as we enter Samsa’s buggy mind. With a dancer’s control, Riter superbly communicates the protagonist’s physical transformation. But he also has an actor’s gift for conveying specific emotions in response to specific events. He shows us in a flash Samsa’s delight at the thought of his devoted sister, his half-smothered anger at his distant parents, and his guilt at no longer being able to work.

Clearly Samsa is a prototype for later protagonists, notably the quintessential Kafka nonentities Joseph K. in The Trial and K. in The Castle, who are ground into powder by mysterious bureaucracies and impossibly demanding authority figures, inviting interpretations focused on Kafka’s social or religious critiques. But this production reminded me of something I’d forgotten about Kafka’s story. It’s not just about one afflicted man but about an entire afflicted family–not just the overworked son but an invalid father, asthmatic mother, and sweet but naive sister, all dealing with the traumatic, life-changing collapse of the family business five years earlier.

Director Rebecca Zellar never lets us forget that Samsa’s transformation into an insect is only the first of many metamorphoses his family undergoes. Meredith Lyons is especially adept, portraying all the changes that Samsa’s sister, Grete, endures over the course of the story. It’s she who feels the deepest grief for his transformation, and she who later snaps and expresses indignation at the changes Samsa’s affliction has forced on the family. Lyons renders Grete’s roller-coaster emotions so accurately it becomes all but impossible to merely observe the story.

Indeed, the whole ensemble seems to understand that beneath the surrealism, absurdity, and intellectual virtuosity of Kafka’s work is a deep yearning for a better life, for acceptance, for connection with others. This yearning suffuses the actors’ body language, revealing itself in Riter’s buglike self-loathing, in Lyons’s careful preparation of rotten food for Samsa, in Anna M. Agniel’s sharp tongue as Samsa’s mother, even in the sighs and newspaper rattling of the castrated and castrating father, played with still-water deepness by Kevin Kingston.

This yearning powers both the comedy and the sorrow in Kafka’s story, a story that attempts to reconcile two opposing perspectives on life: the comical “What fools these mortals be” and the tragic “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.” It speaks volumes about Zellar and her ensemble that they didn’t choose one or the other but created an adaptation as contradictory and complicated as the original.