Hunting for Humanity

Change and transformation are among the themes explored in the Rogue's staging of two works by Kafka

Change is certain. Sometimes we seek change, for personal betterment or perhaps for the social good. Sometimes we have no choice, finding ourselves victims of fate, of the laws of nature, of powers beyond our control and comprehension.

The Rogue Theatre is staging two of Franz Kafka's works: Colin Teevan's adaptation of A Report to an Academy, titled Kafka's Monkey, and Kafka's novella, Metamorphosis. Both deal with themes of change, transformation and adaptation. Neither was written with the stage in mind. A Report to an Academy is transformed to a theatrical piece easily enough because it is essentially a monologue. Metamorphosis is a different beast altogether, and the associate artistic director of the Rogue, Cynthia Meier, who also directs this piece, has adapted Kafka's work for the stage.

As written literature, both of these works are provocative and unsettling. As theater, Monkey, directed by Joseph McGrath and performed with great skill and pathos by Patty Gallagher, grants a dimension to the written word that—while maintaining the story's unsettling and provocative nature—draws us into the experience in the way only theater, with its immediacy and visual dimension, can.

Metamorphosis, on the other hand, does not translate so easily from the page to the stage. And although Meier's adaptation and direction result in a pleasing theater experience, Kafka's story becomes less provocative and more evocative. The production's highly stylized presentation suggests a much less intellectually rich story than is developed in the novella, and gives us much more generic, symbolic, even poetic, content.

A Report to an Academy was published in 1917. The setting is a bare stage with a podium. A mostly human-looking character with a rather quirky physical carriage takes the stage, dressed in tails and a top hat. The subject of Red Peter's speech is the story of his transformation from an ape, shot in his home on the Gold Coast and caged in a ship's hull, to the acceptably human persona we see before us. To demonstrate, he offers an outstretched arm and offers a handshake to an audience member, an action that, he has observed, is the most welcoming, open gesture a human makes.

Red Peter recalls the horror of his capture, of his imprisonment, of his reasoning about how best to deal with his circumstances. He emphasizes that he was not seeking freedom, for that was unavailable to him, but "to find a way out." He realized that his best chance was to rid himself of his own nature and mimic the actions of the humans who have entrapped him. He recounts how he orchestrated his placement in a program that trains apes to perform rather than being sent to a zoo, the only two options apparently available to him. He has excelled, and concludes that he has the educational level of an average European.

As Gallagher relates Red Peter's story, embodying him with amazing physical skill, we are subjected to something compelling, almost endearing, juxtaposed with something utterly repulsive. Kafka opens a window to our humanity and we are found wanting. Whether the story is a comment on evolution or assimilation or any other interpretation we might discover, it's Gallagher's exceptional performance that stirs both our heads and our hearts.

Metamorphosis is that critical piece of modern literature we were all required to read and study in school. Gregor Samsa (Matt Bowdren), a traveling salesman, awakes one morning to discover he has turned into an insectlike vermin. (Kafka never identifies exactly what type of creature, and he specifically requested that an illustration never be made.) A hard worker who has assumed the role of his family's provider, Gregor tries at first to hide his transformed appearance. But when his boss comes looking for him and Gregor's new form is revealed, his family and employer are appalled and disgusted and force him to stay in his room. So begin long periods of isolation, and the debilitating alienation that results.

There are many striking things about Kafka's story, not the least of which is that no cause is posited for Gregor's overnight transformation and that no one, including Gregor, identifies this as horrifyingly abnormal. Nor does anyone seek help. The family at first seems to think that this is a mere anomaly and that Gregor will return to his old self. Gregor's priority is to adapt to his new form and the life it dictates. Kafka's is a strange world. He presents an absurd circumstance but does not treat it as irrational.

Meier creates a more dreamlike world and presents the story in an ephemeral style, including the presence of music created by musical director Paul Amiel and violist Eric Schoon that underscores the entire piece. There is a narrator in the novella; here, Meier has Gregor speak in the first person to tell his story. There's no attempt to make him appear hideous, as though he was a monster-bug, and the audience is meant clearly to identify with him. And his story does touch us, as we recall our own experiences of being an outcast, of alienation and helplessness.

The set has a movable scrim wall between Gregor and his family, and we mostly see the family in silhouette, often miming activities or posed in mid-action. They are shadows; we know them only generally. But this is part of the problem with the attempt to transform the novel into a play. The family undergoes its own important metamorphosis, which here we get in a generalized way and not with the important resonance it has in the book. And there are other critical aspects of the book that deepen its intellectual and symbolic impact that cannot be found here.

Despite this, Meier has created a strong piece of theater. And when coupled with Monkey, the Rogue delivers a strong, artful and thoughtful experience.