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28 Apr

Gregor Samsa Died For Your Sins and Other Marxist Fairy Tales or Small Stages for Big Acts

In the Director’s Notes for Frank Theatre’s Metamorphosis, Frank Artistic Director Wendy Knox writes that “…the process has been a giant potluck, and everyone has made fantastic contributions to the meal,” which has a air of “From each according to their ability…” wafting sweetly from it. It’s a good model for collaborative and innovative theatre. When Frank Theatre was unable to secure the rights to a recent and acclaimed London adaptation of Kafka’s famous tale about a man turned into a “monstrous vermin”, Frank forged ahead and made their own, which turned out to be a great thing, given the abundance of talent in the mix at the Open Eye Figure Theatre when I went on Monday. Acting both as the characters and chorus, the five actors unfold the action of Kafka’s chillingly strange tale in an enthralling fantasy pantomime, exaggerated fingers and postures and gestures creating a universe where real emotion and pathos still exists.

Credit first and foremost must go to John Catron as the stricken Gregor Samsa. He spends most of the 85 minute running time crouched or contorted to convey the physical change afflicting him, and with his fingertips resting on the ground and leading the way as he scuttles about and swings from the rafters of John Beuche’s innovative set, the transformation is complete without elaborate costume tricks. This frees Catron to unleash his most formidable tool, a deep, caring and earnest face which makes Gregor such a pitiable character. Gregor’s greatest fault is his unquestioning devotion to his family, his willingness to suffer under a demanding boss, breaking his back in an attempt to bring his family out of debt. As the opening litany of woes is unfolds, the correlation of causation is hard to avoid: work unquestioningly and you are bound to become a beast, even if it is because of the best of intentions.

The family, with recent City Pages Best of the Twin Cities Best Actor winner Patrick Bailey as Father, Frank veteran Maria Asp as Mother and Tessa Flynn as the little sister Grete, tries to take this transformation in stride, but the horror is imaginatively conveyed through slow motion, exaggerated facial expressions and gestures, all part a shared vernacular developed by the cast that makes the production so engaging. Instead of fake crying, the women run their fingers down their faces in a gesture that is as theatrically aware as it is telling about the fraught relationship between Grete and Mother. Both feel protective of Gregor, and their competing desires to be the one in charge of his care brings out a nasty competitive streak that in some way, enables their own independence. Father reveals himself to be more capable and devious than previously thought by Gregor and Bailey well combines the gruff old man with his newfound spark for survival.

Rounding out the cast is Christopher Kehoe, who plays a number of different characters, from the evil Chief Clerk sent from the office to check on Gregor, who comes across little like Jim Carrey’s deceptive Count Olaf from the Lemony Snicket movie to the insipid charwoman who takes a shine to Gregor and, with the aid of a two-headed puppet, the three lodgers the Samsas take on to make ends meet, with obviously disastrous results. Kehoe’s range on full display and he makes the most of his tall frame to dominate the tiny Open Eye space when needed. Frank Theatre always manages to pull great talent (Shows like Mother Courage, Pillowman and Vinegar Tom come especially to mind) and Metamorphosis is a thrilling and intimate piece of ensemble acting and collaborative production. In the end, as the remaining Samsa family shows in the end, getting out and making work, being productive and feeling useful is good for society, and good for the soul.

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