Transient Theatre

Franz Kafka may not rival goatees, flannel shirts, and grunge rock in trendiness, but he’s getting there. Look at the Kafka shirts on sale in bookstores on Broadway and Clark, the Kafka film festival at the Film Center of the Art Institute, and the recent Kafka film adaptations by David Jones (The Trial) and Steven Soderbergh (Kafka). Somehow the ultimate outsider has made it into the inner sanctum of hipdom. Call it Beetlemania.

The most ballyhooed adaptation of Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis in recent years was the one penned by bad-boy Brit Steven Berkoff, who used the story as a vehicle for a Marxist critique of the plight of the working class in England. It gave Mikhail Baryshnikov and Roman Polanski the opportunity to flop around on various American and European stages as Gregor Samsa, Kafka’s legendary man-turned-insect. And the idea behind Thomas Wawzenek’s adaptation for Transient Theatre is not a bad one. He places Samsa and his family smack-dab in the middle of Middle America, where the dull, daily grind of working one’s way toward the American dream has turned everybody into parasites.

Gregor’s unemployed parents and sister have fed for years off the fruits of his piddling job in sales, and after he’s transformed into a giant insect, they’re far more concerned with their own survival than with his grim state. Mr. Samsa recites homilies to convince his son to return to work, while Mrs. Samsa remains largely ineffectual. Gregor’s sister Grete pities him at first but soon realizes that it will be quite difficult for a bug to pay her way through music school.

There’s a certain slacker appeal in Wawzenek’s vision of The Metamorphosis. Gregor here is a typical modern figure, someone who’s striven to keep his dysfunctional family together until finally he’s literally driven up the wall. Like the 20-something antihero so popular these days, he lives at home in his messy room, sleeps late, eats like an animal, makes incomprehensible noises, and wears a lot of black. It’s the sort of thing Annoyance Theater could turn into a brilliant black comedy: “My name is Gregor Samsa, I’m 27 years old. I still live at home, I’m a salesman, and I’m a giant insect.”

Unfortunately, Wawzenek has not sufficiently committed himself to this intriguing take–or any other, for that matter. Although he has a good sense of pacing and some feel for Kafka’s writing, he has not developed any of the characters besides Gregor: the others are neither real human beings nor effectively drawn caricatures. And reciting generic modern American platitudes makes for flat, uninteresting drama.

Wawzenek’s often colloquial style is also far from poetic. Grete voices her dissatisfaction with Gregor’s metamorphosis by asserting that it has “fucked everything up.” And when she talks of getting a job where she won’t have to answer to a superior, she says she won’t have to “kiss ass” anymore. Gregor chides himself for his own timidity by saying, “You had to play it cool–you couldn’t go for it.” Wawzenek’s few attempts at poetry are too hackneyed to be moving. At Gregor’s death, Mrs. Samsa remarks that he is “curled up . . . like when he was a baby in my womb.”

What’s left, after the commonplace dialogue, is a showcase for Tom Daniel in the role of Gregor. His skittering, slobbering, jumping, and climbing are wonders of athletic and dramatic talent. To hell with Baryshnikov–this guy’s the goods. It’s nothing short of amazing to watch Daniel kick his legs, climb up and down walls, slurp up milk, and even hump a Wyeth painting before slinking off into sorrow and a pitiful longing to be human again. And Liz Cruger has so deftly directed his interactions with the rest of the cast that you actually have the horrifying sensation that Kafka’s parable is springing to life. Perhaps Daniel delights a little too much in the drooling, spittle-flying nature of his character–so much so that he smashes his face into an orange rather than eat it the way a conventional bug would. But he rivets our attention so firmly that he almost makes us overlook this adaptation’s flaws.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randi Shepard.