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Theater: Peter Marks on 'Kafka's Metamorphosis' by Synetic Theater

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 22, 2010; C02

In tackling "The Metamorphosis," Franz Kafka's surrealist novella about a man who goes to bed an office drone and wakes up a dung beetle, Synetic Theater can't quite get all the bugs out. While director Derek Goldman and his inspired designer, Natsu Onoda Power, ably locate a creepy tilt in Gregor Samsa's grotesque predicament, the heart rate of this world-premiere adaptation never achieves the desired racing speed.

Kafka's bleak, cautionary oeuvre finds a compelling theatricality on the page, but perhaps his vision is too internalized, too dependent on triggering associations in the contemplative crawl space of a reader's mind, to be conducive to compelling theater. Synetic's production, at the Rosslyn Spectrum in Arlington, is the third stage interpretation of Kafka's work I've seen in Washington in recent years; the others were by the lamentably defunct Catalyst Theater. None of these evenings have managed to apply a dynamic arc to Kafka's tales.

Goldman, it must be said, has come closest with his new adaptation -- a play given the particularly apt title "Kafka's Metamorphosis" -- for the director turns the sickly, haunted Kafka himself into a character here. As portrayed by Clark Young, the author is a tortured facet of the consciousness of John Milosich's Gregor. Or is it the other way around? Encased in an insect's shell, Milosich pads about Gregor's sad little room, as Young's Kafka communes with his disfigured creation's psychic pain.

The device has a catalytic effect on "Metamorphosis" itself, transforming the story into a metaphor for the author's societal estrangement, his sense -- as a Jew in a hostile Eastern European country -- of being the "other." Outside his room, Gregor's horrified parents (Steve Beall and Annie Houston) and sister (Catalina Lavalle) sit and wait for the nightmare to be over, for Gregor to return to his customary shape. Lavalle's Grete even tries to care for her multi-legged sibling, carrying his feed to him in a bucket. But love and tenderness cannot mitigate the damage.

If the production is hampered by several cartoonish incidental sequences and some wooden line readings, it at least can rely on Power's visual dexterity. Her set is an engineering delight: Gregor's bedroom is upended, so that an audience looks down into it, through the ceiling. This allows the physically adept Milosich -- in consultation with company choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili -- to move about by scaling the slats in the floor with a slithery grace. An eerie, voyeuristic element is added by having ensemble members who double as narrators peer out at us through the floorboards.

You experience, too, the director's commendable efforts at staving off a sense of stasis. Though some conceits feel superfluous, such as having actors rush around with microphones into which their colleagues speak their lines, some ideas aid in creating a hallucinatory dimension. The best of these entails a portrait in Gregor's room that comes to life, embodied by Caitlin Cassidy, who supplies an ethereal vocal underscoring.

Gregor's rebirth into the insect world is strikingly orchestrated as well: Milosich emerges from the stretchable white fabric on Gregor's bed, as if springing from a chrysalis. These arresting moments, however, provide only an intermittent respite from a grim tale's gloomy advance.

Kafka's Metamorphosis

Adapted from Franz Kafka's novel and directed by Derek Goldman. Sets and costumes, Natsu Onoda Power; lighting, Colin K. Bills; original music, Konstantine Lortkipanidze; sound, James Bigbee Garver; movement, Irina Tsikurishvili. With Charlotte Akin, Matt MacNelly, Frank Britton, Vince Eisenson. About 80 minutes. Through May 22 at Rosslyn Spectrum, 1611 N. Kent St., Arlington. Visit http://www.synetictheater.org or call 800-494-8497.

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