Traveling salesman Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning as a giant insect. Thus begins Kafka’s absurd and harrowing cult classic: The Metamorphosis. In a nutshell (or beetle exoskeleton), Gregor’s sudden handicap strikes his parents and beloved sister as a catastrophe: the family is completely financially dependent upon Gregor’s grueling hours of work. (The father’s evident sense of emasculation emerges through his authoritarianism at the dinner table.) In parallel with Gregor’s metamorphosis, the novella follows the transformation of the family’s attitude towards their now arthropodous ex-breadwinner. Human patience wears thin with the onset of destitution.
For the Saint-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival of 2018, the Shylock Project (theatre company based in New York state) is presenting a musical rendition of Kafka’s grim tale. This unconventional interpretation of the Metamorphosis will strike viewers with its quirky nature and jarring humor, whilst masterfully contrasting the campy absurdism of musicals with the dark absurdism of Kafka’s work.
The small troupe of artists – vaguely reminiscent of a traveling circus – shines by the resourcefulness and versatility of its members. A cast of four is enough to portray eight characters, as the interdisciplinary actors energetically juggle between singing, dancing, acting, character-switches and prop-handling.
The setting of the musical fends away any sense of minimalism through the imaginative manipulation of few but multifunctional props. For instance, the kitchen table undergoes its own metamorphoses ranging from giant-insect-climbing posts to beds and puppet stages. The limited usage of electronic devices and electricity – the music is performed live by real organic instruments, whilst a flashlight consists of the main lighting effect – further contributes to the DIY charm of the musical.
Intertwining the Metamorphosis narrative with the author’s biography, the storytelling is fluid and guides the audience to a better understanding of the motifs underlying the story. Self-deprecating banter and humorous allusions to the 21st century (i.e. poking fun at “Kafka scholars” or rhyming “weird and dark” with “Kafka’s hallmark”) lighten the tone of a story that would have otherwise been too serious for a musical. (Don’t get me wrong: musicals are rife with dark undertones. However, a musical must parody the bleakness in life to avoid the tragedy of operas.)
The Shylock Project’s literary interpretation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis was concrete and to the point and can be summarized in two words: Daddy Issues. The troupe only had an hour to exploit this theme, and they did so unambiguously.
Finally, not to spoil too many surprises, but many wonders await future audiences, including UV lighting and shadow play.
Kafka’s Metamorphosis The Musical continues through June 17 as part of the St. Ambroise Montreal FRINGE Festival. Find out all shows and info at montrealfringe.ca. Montreal Rampage coverage of the Fringe Festival includes reviews of Betch a Sketch, Public Mischief, Sex But I’m Canadian, Stories About Love, Death, & a Rabbit, The Eulogy, The Autism Monologues, Greasy, Dance Side of the Moon, Buyer and Cellar, Lucky, Don’t Read the Comments,Crime After Crime (After Crime), Is that How Clowns Have Sex?, SCUM FM, Jellyfish are Immortal, Naked Ugly Dancing, and Rootless Tree.