Kafka's The Metamorphosis is, for all its terse language, sparse emotional display, and brevity, a tale with some pretty huge themes about family dynamics, the personal and professional world, the nature of routine, and the mind-soul-body connection. Its simple, even flat, prose and its curiously passive main character work to contradict the horror of its central plotline: a profoundly ordinary man who lives a life of deadening routine goes to sleep one night, has some bad dreams, and wakes up a huge bug who can understand but can no longer communicate with the people he comes into contact with. His horrified family locks him into his room, where he remains for most of his slow, sad demise. His sister and mother initially attempt to connect with him in their own ways, while his father, never close to him, spurns him, sometimes violently, and always with rage. Eventually, the entire family tires of him, and his only visitor becomes the family's new charwoman, who suffers no nonsense and barely cleans his increasingly filthy room. Aware of what a burden he has become, he dies, mournfully and alone.
When I read The Metamorphosis in college, I don't remember being able to get past the basic outrageousness of the tale: "Oo, dude's a bug. Gross. His family rejects him. Lame. He dies. Bummer." But now, having re-read it in middle age, I can only see it as a metaphor for serious, incapacitating illness, and its impact not only on the individual but on the extended family and the community. To say, then, that the tale feels realer, scarier, more haunting to me now than it did then is a vast understatement.
A stunning interpretation of The Metamorphosis is being performed at the Joyce through September 29, and if you get the chance--even if, like me, you're typically more confused than you are thrilled by dance--you should rush out to see it. The big picture is worth the price of admission, really: Edward Watson, who plays Gregor, is an astoundingly limber, flexible, intuitive dancer who was clearly born to perform this piece; the supporting cast is excellent, too. The choices the production has made--to update the piece to the 1950s; to imply more overtly than the book does that Gregor's transformation is, indeed, symbolic of some kind of grave illness; to make Grete a dancer instead of a violinist; to gradually cover the stage with oozing, brown muck; to suggest a slightly different (if still devastatingly sad) ending--are daring, but they all worked for me. So too did the strange and appropriate score, played entirely by the multi-instrumentalist Frank Moon, and the bits of humor that frequently lightened the piece (the three boarders were awesome, and the charwoman, hilarious in the book, transferred perfectly to the stage).
But for all the astoundingly limber bodies, the big sounds that emanated from Moon's one-man-band (set up off stage right, and often as fascinating as what was happening on stage), and the jerky movements Watson--an enormous man with a strange, believably insect-like physique--executed throughout the piece, I was moved most frequently by the subtlest of moments. Throughout the piece, various characters haltingly reach out to touch Gregor as a means to connect with him despite his transformation, or look sorrowfully at one another, or stare blankly at the television, the wall, one another. The sorrowful looks only intensify; the attempts to connect with Gregor dissolve into frustration, exhaustion, disgust. It is the touching of hands, and then the absence of such touching, that lingers with me, as does the haunted, sorrowful way that Gregor--bathed in muck, fully isolated, and tucked pitifully into an almost improbably tight fetal position--looks dully up at the light when the charwoman opens his window for him and lets in a little light just prior to his death. Such tiny moments serve as important, if endlessly haunting, reminder of how fragile human connections are, and how devastating their absence can be.