"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect."
So begins Franz Kafka's seminal tale, but on Wednesday night at The Joyce, this transformation happened to Edward Watson -- a Royal Ballet superstar better known for his portrayals of noble princes than lowly vermin.
At least until now. Watson's metamorphosis into a quivering, crawling creature is so complete that I doubt I will ever look at an insect again without thinking of him. Yet however impressive his ability to interpret both princes and pests, it is his depiction of the broad spectrum of humanity in between that ultimately defines his performance.
Director and choreographer Arthur Pita's interpretation of "The Metamorphosis" is largely true to the novella, but starts with an effective twist. We first meet Gregor not as a bug, but as a young man who drearily, but dutifully works as a traveling salesman to support his family. A pristine, white set reflects the sterility of his existence, while walls that seem to cave in create a distinct sense of claustrophobia.
Three times we see him trudge through the tedium of his daily routine: rising, dressing, catching a train, throwing back a morning coffee and after-work spirit at precisely the same time and place. Each evening, he returns to his family -- his asthmatic mother (Nina Goldman), unsympathetic father (Anton Skrzypiciel) and giddy sister Grete (Corey Anand) -- for a supper that he can barely stomach before going to bed and doing it all over again the next day.
The only changes that occur over time are to Grete, who in this version blossoms into a graceful ballerina, and to Gregor himself, who becomes more and more depressed and worn down.
By the fourth time the alarm sounds on the darkened stage, Gregor does not rise to turn it off. Instead, Frank Moon's haunting score introduces slurpy, squishy bug sounds, and when the lights finally come on, we see Gregor writhing on his back in bed, wiry limbs in the air, fingers and toes rippling as if he really did no longer have bones. His family discovers him with screams of horror, and the stage is set for the anti-hero's long (maybe too long), inevitable decline.
I say "maybe too long" because some parts of "The Metamorphosis" drag a bit -- perhaps owing to Mr. Pita's desire to be faithful to the text.
For example, Grete does lots of scurrying between Gregor's room and the kitchen to discover that her bug-brother now prefers putrid scraps to fresh food. But the reality of Gregor's transformation also hits home for Grete -- and in a far more effective and poetic way -- in a heartbreaking duet in which she discovers that she cannot untwist her brother's limbs back into their human form.
That said, the fact that the production could afford to dispense with some of its narrative elements is also a testament to its strengths. In addition to the excellent acting and dancing by all cast members, creative staging and striking special effects help illustrate the metamorphosis of both Gregor and his family.
Certainly the most dramatic of these effects is a dark, bilious substance (which turns out to be treacle) that magically pools on stage, forming a thicker and thicker coat on Gregor as he loses his grip on humanity.
In a terrifying nightmare scene, two creatures in full black body suits fling the goop all over Gregor's room and smear it on the hapless bug, bringing to mind the fouled chamber of a mad man. It is also in this scene that the walls of the room tilt back and reveal the underside of the bed, effectively offering a "bug's eye view" of Gregor's room for the remainder of the performance.
All the while, Gregor's family is undergoing its own metamorphosis as they adapt to the burden of their resident vermin. As Grete, Ms. Anand convincingly transforms from girl into woman, as her relationship with her brother transforms from compassion to disgust. She continues caring for him not out of love, but out of a deep sense of duty -- a character trait reinforced by the unhappy, but robotic diligence with which she practices ballet.
As Mrs. Samsa, Ms. Goldman's greatest strength is the frailty with which she portrays her character. She has a mother's urge to connect with her son, but ultimately can't accept him in his transformed state (a fact that Gregor accepts with heart-wrenching humanity in a duet with her, after she has fainted upon seeing him).
Finally, Mr. Samsa, as played by Skrzypiciel, is the least transformed emotionally -- perhaps reflecting Kafka's own perception of his father as heartless. But without Gregor to provide for the family, he does manage to find a new source of income by taking boarders into their home, which is very well kept outside Gregor's quarters.
Well kept, that is, until Gregor slips out of his room (completely coated in black goop) and unintentionally scares the boarders away, and with them, the livelihood of which he feels so guilty to have deprived his family.
At the end of the novella, Gregor -- no longer wanting to be a burden to his family -- quietly starves himself to death.
In this version, though, the loquacious and unflinching cleaning lady, wittily portrayed by Bettina Carpi, opens his bedroom window and encourages him to fly out. (According to Mr. Pita in a post-performance talk, this choice was a deferral to Nabokov's interpretation of the story, according to which Gregor doesn't realize that he has wings under his shell.)
In the gripping final scene, made all the more haunting by a plaintive violin, Gregor's family enters his empty room in their own black coats of mourning and approach the window out of which he has flown.
Finally able to emerge from a shell that has held her captive for so long, Grete completes her metamorphosis by shedding her black coat and raising her arms, chillingly bringing to mind the final line of the book: "And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions that at the end of their ride, the daughter was the first to get up, stretching her young body."
"The Metamorphosis" runs through Sept. 29 at The Joyce, 175 8th Ave. For information or tickets, call 212-242-0800 or visit www.joyce.org.