For anyone who has ever awoken in the morning feeling for all the world like a revolting, prostrate, chitin-dripping giant insect—and really, who hasn't?—Kafka's Metamorphosis retains evergreen appeal. In Frank Theatre's lean, faithful interpretation of its source novella, the horror of Gregor Samsa's predicament is rendered with equal parts humor and strangeness.
Kafka provides the narrative closely adapted by this company-created show. Gregor (John Catron) is a traveling salesman who thoroughly despises a job that requires him to rise in the wee hours daily to catch trains to his sales calls. His horrible father (Patrick Bailey) and mother (Maria Asp) regularly perform a double whammy on their son, browbeating him with relentless negativity, all the while expecting him to provide for their financial support.
So when Gregor awakes on his back, transformed into a disgusting giant bug, his primary concern is one of logistics. Catron, dressed all in white and without resorting to prosthetics, gnarls his hands and kicks his legs ineffectually, a picture of anxiety that intensifies as the clock winds forward. He's so pathetically beaten down by his life that becoming a giant cockroach is the least of his problems—he's more concerned about the shit he will have to eat at the office for being late.
Wendy Knox directs, and her taste for rough edges and incautious intensity is well suited to what transpires. When Gregor is initially unsuccessful at getting out of bed, despite his parents pounding on his locked door, his plight deepens with the arrival of the Chief Clerk (Christopher Kehoe). Despite Gregor only being an hour or so tardy, he has to deal with his officious prick of a co-worker, and when he finally gets his door open, he's greeted with the full repulsion of what he has become.
This becomes a story about claustrophobia in every way, centered on Gregor's subsequent cramped existence in his room, with only his sister (Tessa Flynn) able to overcome her disgust to leave him table scraps to eat. No less narrow are the family's prospects: With Gregor unable to work, his parents' interests turn wholly toward the selfish. Gregor is a burden in every way; he responds by scuttling about his room, climbing the walls (literally), and looking wistfully out the window as his humanity seeps away.
Of course what's often misunderstood about Kafka is his propensity for a laugh, or at least a mordant chuckle. Asp and Bailey carry much of the load here, their performances so melodramatic as to undercut the oceans of self-pity that run through the story. When Asp and Flynn weep, for instance, their fingers spastically trace the lines of the tears running down their character's faces. For a story based on brutal metaphor, there's ample room to comprehend the silliness inherent in just about every domestic horror.
Running through the piece is Michael Croswell's sound work, all slamming doors and discordant notes, so pervasive as to almost constitute a character in itself. The sensory effect is intense, and when Gregor is injured by his father and begins his descent toward death, jagged tones evoke a genuine disharmony of the spirit.
And then there's a happy ending (of all things). When Gregor's life force ebbs, his family's grows proportionally. Flynn traces the sister's arc from sweet and withdrawn to harsh, severe, and self-possessed. When Gregor grosses out a trio of boarders the family has taken in (Kehoe, along with two puppets), it's clear that something has to change. And it's abundantly evident that Gregor's family never held him in much regard.
So what begins with a flash of terror rides off into a happy new day, all smiles and possibilities. However else you interpret it, Metamorphosis was as much about Kafka's tortured psyche and family life as anything. It's a hysterical laugh, a sob, then a throwing up of the hands: Here it's delivered with all the spiky swings intact.