Kafka’s classic “The Metamorphosis” has been subjected to countless interpretations over the years. Few have strayed away from the original text, there’s simply nothing much to add to an already perfect work. A heavy reworking of Kafka’s vision would instantly be deemed sacrilegious.
In a new adaptation, which premiered last week at the European Theater Prize (ETP) in St. Petersburg, Russia, Icelandic theater company Vesturport, led by Gisli Orn Gardarsson, walks a fine line between staying faithful to the text and adding a new twist that casts the protagonists of the story in a different light. By shifting the focus from Gregor’s inner struggle to the dynamic of his family relationships, Gardarsson has transformed Kafka’s novella from a tale about an existential crisis to a kitchen-sink drama.
Kafka’s story remains intact: Gregor, a young salesman, wakes up one morning to find out that he’s turned into a giant bug. Instead of standing by his side, his family rejects him, driving him into alienation and consequently suicide.
The highly inventive set is divided into two sections: A ground floor encompassing the soulless dining room and a second floor where Gregor’s tiny room is located. His bed is tilted vertically against the wall while a lamp is jut in the point of the audience. Playing Gregor, Gardarsson barely keeps his two feet on the ground during the entire duration of the performance, climbing up walls and crawling over every object on set. Gardarsson’s impressive feat is a reflection of the palpable physicality of his theater that relies primarily on the exteriors instead of psychology to communicate emotions.
Sidestepping the thorough psychological scrutiny of Kafka’s work to focus on the family intensifies the absurdity of the drama, rendering in consequence Greta and Mr. and Mrs. Samsa as an eccentric, dysfunctional family.
Gardarsson has little sympathy for Gregor’s family (especially the father), portraying them as an uncompassionate, self-serving lot that don’t shy away from resorting to cruel tactics to protect their image and interests.
Gregor, in his deformity, thus appears to be the safety valve that has been preventing his sister and his parents from collapsing. As it turned out, they don’t; they restructure themselves into a different, coherent unit with a new purpose, a monster no different than Gregor.
Sympathy is never lost on Gregor who remains as tragic and sensitive as ever. Gardarsson perfectly captures his character’s helplessness, estrangement and tragic heroism. Gregor remains the ultimate symbol of the social outcast and in Gardarsson’s adaptation; he also becomes the brother of a sister who gave up her musical talent for a drab work and a son to parents who passed on their failure to their children. “The Metamorphosis” is a stunning accomplishment and one of the best performances I’ve seen at the ETP.
A completely different experience is “The Theater” by Czech company Farm in the Cave. A wordless dance theater performance, inspired by dance rhythms of Brazilian slaves, “The Theater” is an enigmatic performance within a performance, starting off with a reenactment of “a bull’s resurrection” as described in the program’s note and then progresses into something even more puzzling.
The performers are divided into two companies: the handsomely dressed aristocracy and the velvet-suit-drabbed slaves/minority. The agony of the slaves provides a spectacle for the vainglorious aristocrats who watch them from afar. A member of the aristocrats descends to the land of the slaves and, in an act symbolized by an exchange of garments, gets a taste of what it feels like to be one of them.
The tension between both parties doesn’t diminish for a second; a kaleidoscope of emotions, ideas and sensations are conveyed in the performers’ often aggressive body movements. Director Viliam Do?olomanský astutely uses space and movement to create a visceral act that defies categorization, conversing directly with the senses.
A constant clash between autonomy and control outlines the loose drama through not only dance but also via the percussion-driven score. Like many performances shown at the ETP, “The Theater” opens a window for unpredictable art that does without a context. Do?olomanský lost me near the end but all in all, “The Theater” is vigorous, exciting and wonderfully dirty.
The same cannot be said about epic Russian play “Moscow-Petushki” by director Andriy Zholdak. The three-and-a-half-hour performance is based on Venedikt Erofeev’s celebrated 1969 postmodern poem which was banned for a number of years in Russia. The poem centers on drunkard Moscow worker Venya who, after getting fired for his excessive drinking habits, decides to travel to his beloved hometown of Petushki to see his daughter. Before he reaches his destination, he spends all his savings on alcohol as he steadily descends into madness.
Cherished by the Russians, Erofeev’s powerful stream of consciousness poem was a reaction to the Stalinist era; Venya’s self-destructive endeavor was regarded as a defiant act to the Soviet rule.
Zholdak’s play takes the form of the Venya’s hallucinations, blurring the line between reality and fantasy. Alas, the hallucinations are essentially composed of endless torrent of blabbering that says little about both the story’s protagonist and the vexing climate of the time. While shocking and moving on paper, Venya’s delirious visions in Zholdak’s production are neither imaginative nor wild. Little action was witnessed in the grand Baltic Theater where the performance was staged; a sense of purposelessness and disarray increased personal engagement with the story.
The vast majority of foreign critics, including myself, walked out before the intermission. Russian critics claimed that the play redeems itself in the last 30 minutes. I find it quite difficult though to believe that emotional investment could suddenly be born with the conclusion of a story. “Moscow-Petushki” is a very Russian performance replete with very Russian connotations targeted exclusively to Russian audience already familiar with Erofeev’s work. Zholdak’s failure lies in his disability to tell such a monumental story not only with clarity but with imagination and pathos.
Our coverage of the European Theater Awards continues next week with more reports on Vesturport and Farm in the Cave, the politics of the Euro Awards and the best production of the 2011 edition.
Farm in the Cave Theatre Studio in ‘The Theatre’ directed by Viliam Docolomansky. (Photo by Luciano Rossetti / Phocus Agency)