Performed Nov. 2-17 by People’s Branch Theatre at 405 12th Ave. S. “Pay what you can”preview, Nov. 1
For tickets, call 254-0008
When Czech-Austrian writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924) published The Metamorphosis in 1915, he may or may not have had a sense of the levels of interpretation that would be applied to his distinctively different novella.
But surely what he had wrought was unusualand pretty difficult to accept on merely literal terms. Gregor Samsa, a young traveling salesman who financially supports his parents and younger sister, wakes up one morning to discover that he has been transformed overnight into a “monstrous vermin,” or cockroach. Soon his abilities, tastes and interests begin to change. No one can understand his “insect-speech.” Furthermore, he likes to scurry under the furniture and eat rotten scraps of food. Horrified, Gregor’s family keeps him in his bedroom and refuses to interact with him. Only his sister, Grete, demonstrates concern by bringing him food each day. Eventually, Gregor befalls the fate of many an insect when his father hits him with an apple in an attempt to chase him away. Gregor dies, and the cleaning woman throws his remains into the garbage.
In plain terms, Gregor’s predicament is seen as much like that of any person suffering from a severe, particularly disfiguring, chronic illness or disability. His life story and personal identity change dramatically; his senses are different; shifts in spatial arrangements restrict his movements; his voice is transformed. Some of Gregor’s changes are generated from within; some are conditioned by the world’s reaction to his metamorphosis.
Psychoanalytic interpretation might hold that The Metamorphosis proscribes the imminent rebellion of the son against the father. Gregor had become strong as a result of his father’s failure. He crippled his father’s self-esteem and took over the father’s position in the family. After the catastrophe, the sequence happens in reverse: Son becomes weak, and father kills him.
The Metamorphosis has also been interpreted as a reaction against bourgeois society and its demands. Gregor’s manifest physical separation may represent his alienation and inarticulate yearnings. He had been a “vermin,” crushed by authority and routine. He had been imprisoned by social and economic burdens.
Interestingly enough, you won’t find such bleak sensibilities played out in People’s Branch Theatre’s new stage adaptation of Kafka’s work.
“We’ve tried to make it immensely entertaining at every turn, and if we can squeeze another laugh out of it, we will,” says Matt Chiorini, who has written the script and directs a stellar cast of local actors, including Holly Allen, Mikael Byrd, Jane Stoub, Mark Tankersley, Arita Trahan and People’s Branch artistic director Brian Niece, who stars as Gregor. “Previous adaptations have pretty much focused on Gregor and kept to the story. The problem with that is that it’s so dark and angst-ridden. That’s interesting in its own way, but to me the really funny part is the family’s reaction. They’re more concerned about Gregor’s earning potential and how the family’s finances are affected by him turning into a giant insect. It’s absurdbut that’s the beauty of the story. We’ve made it rather an American family drama with a sitcom mentality.”
While Kafka’s metaphor of the cockroach has been politicized, scholars agree that it doesn’t represent any one thing, according to Chiorini. “In our day and age, it could be political,” he says. “Or Gregor could be 'coming out,’ or admitting he’s a drug addict or that he’s got a depression disorder. It could be anything. What’s important is that there’s this revelation, and suddenly the family no longer recognizes the person they had been so accustomed to. We can draw all kinds of things out of it because of the universality of family. We can all relate to family dysfunction and conflict.”
Niece, who spends the evening climbing the walls in a black bodysuit, stresses that despite the story’s gloomy undertones, audiences can expect something quite different in this production. “The book offers a lot of inner thinking and interior dialogue; there’s not a whole lot of that in Matt’s adaptation. Yes, it’s about Gregor, but he’s also made it about the familyin particular, Grete the sister and her coming of age. What also is brilliant about it is that Matt’s version is a dark comedy. I think people are going to laugh hysterically for the majority of the play.”
The Metamorphosis is a 75-minute, no-intermission presentation that has been shaped by the process of mounting it, specifically because the scriptwriter is also the director.
“My vision has changed and developed through rehearsal,” says Chiorini. “We’ve even re-written scenes on the fly. Since I adapted it with a directorial eye toward it, all along the way one process has been informing the other. We entered rehearsals with about 98 percent of the script completed. And we’d been helped by doing staged readings for Nashville Theatre Works. Yet it’s still developing. This is a vital thing we’re creating.”
The production is also in keeping with People’s Branch’s commitment to doing theater that’s a bit off the beaten path. “My aesthetic,” Niece says, “involves thinking 'outside the box’ with form. Luckily, we have artists in this town who are willing to do that. In this play, Matt has experimented with different forms of presentation, which makes it incredibly intriguing to watch. It’s definitely unlike anything that’s been seen on a Nashville stage in many ways.”
In sync with that aesthetic, the production will be presented in a new performance space in the Gulchin a converted warehouse nestled between the former 6º and Provence Breads & Cafe’s new baking facility. “This is a guerrilla, alternative-theater space,” says Niece. “From the minute you walk in the door, you’ll be prepared for something different.”
It would appear, then, that both content and packaging will present a challenge to Nashville theatergoers, who, according to Chiorini, will have much to ponder after the experience. “It’s not as if the script supports my view of somethingfor example, 'We should treat people who are different than us well’and I can walk smugly out of the theater feeling good about myself,” he says. “It’s not that kind of a story. There’s no moral or lesson at the end of the fairy tale. You are left thinking about its implications, and that’s what I like about it. It asks, What do I tolerate and what don’t I tolerate? What’s the point at which I won’t accept somebody?”
Who knows? We may even change our negative views about cockroaches.
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