"Metamorphosis," a stage adaptation of Franz Kafka's bizarre short story about a man who turns into a cockroach, does nothing for the reputation of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, although the general dinginess of the evening may instigate a brief run on Raid.
Working from an inert script by Ralph Hunt, director Howard Shalwitz has mounted a self-indulgent production filled with all sorts of arty touches that not only fail to illuminate Kafka's fable, but add an unnecessary level of puzzlement to a story unsettling enough on its own terms. Coming on the heels of "The Vienna Notes," "Metamorphosis," which runs through July 6, suggests the Woolly Mammoth's predilection for the unusual and provocative play is becoming dangerously forced.
As a symbol of alienation, it's hard to beat Gregor Samsa (Grover Gardner), the army veteran who wakes up in bed one morning to discover that he has acquired the body of a foul insect, secreting strange viscous substances. His mother, father and sister all swear, "We'll stand by you." But they, too, will go through metamorphoses of their own and, as Gregor proves increasingly loathsome, wash their hands of any responsibility for his plight.
Most of Hunt's script is narration, delivered by Gregor in a normal enough voice that is nonetheless perceived by the other characters as incomprehensible screeching. All too often, when there is an actual scene to be played, Gregor tells us about it first. There is no drama here, merely illustration. Hunt's biggest switch on the original is to present Gregor as a Vietnam veteran, whose unsavory presence, apparently, activates the unspoken guilt over the war that continues to flourish on the home front. Like the mindless family in David Rabe's "Sticks and Bones," Gregor's kin would prefer that he die rather than acknowledge the implications of his condition.
The absence of dramatic tension might be less grievous if the Woolly Mammoth production managed to conjure up a climate. But all the directorial and scenic inventions function as so many distractions. The actors activate on-stage tape recorders for most of the sound effects and are constantly rearranging and rehanging the doors on John Connole's jungle gym set. The stage floor is covered with wire mesh and dozens of yellow tennis balls, which could be insect larvae if the characters didn't stack them into tiny pyramids. Gardner can't seem to get a handle on his odd role, while the others -- Laurel Lefkow, Jim Byrnes, Barbara Rappaport and Michael Russotto -- perform in a variety of styles, some broader than others, but none more convincing than the next.
Am I incorrect in sensing here the influence of Peter Sellars, the controversial director of the Kennedy Center's American National Theater? It's as if the Woolly Mammoth, which has made a mark for adventurousness, is determined with "Metamorphosis" to to reclaim its position on the cutting edge. What it has come up with instead is dull hash.
Metamorphosis, by Ralph Hunt. Directed by Howard Shalwitz. Set, John M. Connole; lighting, Nancy Schertler; costumes, Petricia Raabe. With Grover Gardner, Laurel Lefkow, Jim Byrnes, Barbara Rappaport, Michael Russotto. At the Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 1317 G. St. NW, through July 7.