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At Kennedy Center, ‘Metamorphosis’ turns Kafka’s tale on its side

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Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” is the famous tale of alienation in which the protagonist, traveling salesman Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning as an insect. It’s a creepy fable, and the magnetic adaptation now at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater turns Kafka’s novel into a creepy-crawly event.

This well-traveled show from Iceland’s Vesturport and London’s Lyric Hammersmith theaters is an early entry in the Kennedy Center’s month-long Nordic Cool festival, and it is imaginatively bug-eyed. The ingeniously designed, athletically performed 80-minute piece sweeps us into Kafka territory by surreally splitting the Samsa household in two. The audience gets a conventional view of the drab dining room downstairs, while upstairs we look straight down into Gregor’s bedroom.

That’s a simple trick, sort of. Bokur Jonsson’s set places Gregor’s bed and furniture on the wall to suggest our overhead vantage point. But Jonsson also cleverly incorporates handholds and footholds all over the set, which allows the muscular, flexible Gisli Orn Gardarsson to scamper up and down like a frightened insect.

The sight of a man-bug perched on a chair that somehow rests sideways on a wall inspires a slightly mind-blown “whoa” as you watch it, and that warped perspective supplies a good deal of the production’s appeal. The show gets the essence of Gregor’s weird world: the gymnastic Gardarsson, dressed in a dark suit, is physically impressive as he clings and scoots, but he is also a sympathetic G regor, shunned and quivering alo ne in his room and cowering as his horrified family screams and swats at him.

Jonsson’s design and Gardarsson’s central performance are so effective that “Metamorphosis” slackens a bit when the focus is off Gregor. The show, which premiered in 2006 and has since toured the world, is adapted and directed by Gardarsson and David Farr (former head of the Lyric Hammersmith, now an associate director with the Royal Shakespeare Company), and it takes a harsh view of Gregor’s family as crisp and rigid but emotionally flat.

The formidable cast enters with dancelike precision that gradually metamorphoses into something more militaristic — oddly sharp movements that eventually suggest goose steps. The nightmarish, barking style of the acting, especially in Ingvar E. Sigurdsson’s forceful turn as Gregor’s braying father, easily becomes high villainy, a melodramatic approach that is reinforced by old-fashioned footlights casting deep shadows. (The lighting is designed by Bjorn Helgason.)

You can’t miss the theme of fascism or hints of Holocaust vocabulary as words such as “lists,” “extermination” and “solution” scuttle into the dialogue. Gardarsson and Farr advance Kafka’s 1915 book to the cusp of World War II, and that’s fine. It’s just not the most interesting part of the show.

What’s interesting is the way Sigurdsson, Selma Bjornsdottir (as Gregor’s initially caring sister Greta) and Edda Arnljotsdottir (Gregor’s frightened mother) flinch and cover their ears whenever Gregor speaks. Also fascinating is the original music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, an insinuating soundscape that is by turns folksy, sinister and melancholy.

This “Metamorphosis” — not to be confused with the adaptation of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” currently splashing about in a large pool at Arena Stage — is consistently muscular, and the visual appeal seldom quits. Gardarsson deploys circus skills as Gregor all the way to the grim finish as Jonsson’s thoughtful set reveals its final twist. The depiction of estrangement is consistently vivid and persuasively Kafkaesque.

Take note: The Nordic Cool theater offerings last only two or three days each. “Metamorphosis” concludes Friday.

Metamorphosis

by Franz Kafka, adapted and directed by David Farr and Gisli Orn Gardarsson. Sound design, Nick Manning. With Vikingur Kristjansson. About 80 minutes. Through Friday at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.

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