“I do not want to see that ever in my living room again.” Being faced with a six-foot-tall beetle seated at your dinner table would cause problems for the most socially inclusive of souls, but inclusiveness is the very last thing on the mind of the outraged father in “Metamorphosis.” So far, so vindictive. What makes matters worse is that the offending insect is actually his son Gregor, a bizarre fact made not so much plain as theatrically startling in David Farr and Gisli Orn Gardarsson’s vivid production harnessing the unique talents of Vesturport, the Icelandic physical theater company with a rapidly accelerating U.K. reputation.
Following the spirit of the Jewish Kafka’s prescient 1912 original, this “Metamorphosis” is short on plot but long on a premise with resonant social and political implications. Gregor (Gardarsson), a former junior clerk who, to his needy parents’ delight, has graduated to being a traveling salesman, wakes up to discover he has turned into a cockroach. Something so abnormal in the bosom of a family must remain entirely hidden from the authorities.
The extremities of the situation are made manifest from the word go.
The opening downstairs scene of a starchily repressed family getting ready for breakfast is precisely choreographed to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ alternately skittering and eerie string-based soundscape.
Unlike the novel, however, there’s a welcome, minor-key comedy to this set-up thanks to the controlled artificiality of the acting, which is anchored to the beats of the score.
Unbeknownst to the folks downstairs, things upstairs are literally off-kilter. Unlike the rest of Borkur Jonsson’s set for this typical family home, Gregor’s bedroom has been turned through a vertiginous 90 degrees. Thus the floor of his room is now the back wall, with Gregor’s bed hanging vertically and a lampstand thrusting out toward the audience. This brilliantly aids the physical illusion of Gregor’s transformation into an insect. Simply to cross his room, for example, Gardarsson’s 6-foot-2-inch Gregor has to swing perilously into position via handles in the ceiling of the set.
Gregor speaks normally but all his family hear is unintelligible, frightening screeching. As a result, they are intent upon keeping this horrifying transformation a secret as helpless Gregor, only slowly understanding what has happened to him, can do nothing but inflame their fears.
Inexorably, that fear escalates into terror and unthinking rage. That, in turn, grows into murderous intent when, in a visual coup, Gregor crashes through the ceiling and wrecks their chance of happiness by frightening off a suitor (fiercely neat Jonathan McGuinness) for his sister, Grete.
She is the moral barometer of the story. Starting off as an ankle-socked young girl frightened by but caring for her brother, Nina Dogg Filippusdottir’s ideally blond Grete displays a nightmarish slide toward selfish self-preservation that echoes the effect of Nazi control upon the German population. That element of display, however, is the production’s weakness.
There’s something chilly about the physical bravura that renders the story oddly unmoving. Part of that is due to the score. Its prevailing tone of particularly sinister ambient music is moodily beautiful, yet for long stretches its barely discernible rhythm feels unchanging. That slows everything down to the point where auds are too far ahead of the action.
Nonetheless, the winningly realized vision of the adaptation and Gardarsson’s dominant performance are so arresting that most other literary adaptations pale by comparison.