Sunday, May 1, 2016

Review: Kafka's Freak Show

by Michael Block

It's likely at some point in your schooling you were likely required to read Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis". For those of you who haven't, the single line summary is simple. Kafka's metamorphic metaphorical saga follows a man who transforms into an insect-like creature as he attempts to adjust to his horrific presence. Lifting this idea into a freely adapted stage play, InVersion Theatre’s Gregor follows a young hipster-esque man who becomes a burden on his family after metamorphosing into an unseen creature.
Written by Willaim Steinberger and the whole InVersion crew, Gregor is a modern, but not entirely, reimagining of the Kafka classic with a backdrop of a traveling freak show. Gone is the physical bug making way for a metaphorical leech on society. Filled with an overabundance of concepts, Gregor is a tonally baffling play that never really finds its footing. To begin, Steinberger sets his play through a failed attempt to recreate a poor touring company production, which in turn just appears as random items thrown together last minute. This conceit invites a meta-theatrical ambiance where the fourth wall is shattered willy-nilly. The MC and players take part in an apropos freak show only the freak in question is seemingly a desperate actor found off the street portraying the titular character. Taking the themes from Kafka’s text, Steinberger shifts from bawdy comedy to obscure drama with no qualms. With the commentary of the freak show and the constant momentum halting, Gregor seems to have thrown too many ideas into a blender in hopes of a smooth product. Sadly it’s just lumpy and hard to take down. Aside from the natural disconnect, the conceit Steinberger explores has some holes, namely in the use of the MC. The MC is an accent-laden Eastern European woman who controls the show yet she drops into the role of Greta where it’s a drastic turn. There is something odd about this device. Without the MC as the MC present, there is no one steering the ship. The metaphor of the MC as a controlling society gets lost when the MC is Greta. While it would not be as meaty of a role, having a separate player to portray Greta would have been much stronger. From a text standpoint, Steinberger litters his script with references that disconnect from the period of the world of the play. Because clarity doesn’t precisely define time and space, understanding relies on audial and visual experience. It’s yet another element of disconnect. The commentary of who Gregor is compared to what he appears to be is possibly the strongest thesis of the InVersion production. It allows for a personal interpretation to be formed. It’s just a shame that it got swallowed up by the rest of the production.
photo by David Slotnick
Andreas Damm gave his all as Gregor. Literally shaking and throwing himself across the room after laying in a roadbox during the entirety of preshow, Damm brings immense physicality. While he doesn’t get to show off his text prowess until later, it’s a reward when it comes. Playing the world of cross-dressing physical comedy, the tag team of Michael Calciano and Melissa Cesarano have fun. And that’s all you can ask for a performer who’s given whacky material. Marisa Brau, to no fault of her own, offered a speckled performance. Brau took on two personas that lacked any connection.
Playing adaptor and director, William Steinberger had a concept and ran with it. You have to commend him for that. But what Steinberger placed on page didn’t quite translate on stage. Another collaborative eye could have been useful. Visually, lighting designer David Levitt playing with endless possibilities of the Gallery at The Access Theater. Striking looks, utilizing harsh cold and happy warm looks brought out an array of moods. The evocative soundscape from Ben Ferber was a great mix of horror and circus to create something eerie.
Credit should be given for ambition but Gregor didn’t quite reach its potential. Finding just exactly what this play is will be essential for the production to move to the next level.