Ghost Light Theatricals and Wilder Nutting-Heath sure picked a tough one. Franz Kafka’s famous novella “The Metamorphosis” details the downfall of already downtrodden salesman Gregor Samsa, who wakes one morning and finds himself transformed into a man-sized insect. He is a man surrounded by the disgust of others, even to a great degree from his own family, even before he awakes to find himself an insect. Strife and hate results before Gregor eventually dies for the benefit of his family. Heartwarming tale: Read more about the basics here.
Wilder Nutting-Heath teamed up with local shadow puppeteer Nick Hubbard to build an abstract stage production outlining Gregor’s story. Brian Eagen’s set features cloth-thin walls, allowing them to double as screens with which Hubbard’s musically accompanied back-lit puppetry can play out through a team of four puppeteers between actor-driven scenes.
The acting is functional. The script, in honoring the fractured and formatically difficult story, does all it can with a story that’s more Beckettian in its abstraction than anything. Wilder’s script even adds in a spiritual seer-like well dressed man (Daniel Reaume) who slips into and out of the room to consult with Gregor as his world breaks down. Adam Davis as Gregor sinks capably into Gregor’s saddest and darkest moments with full commitment, and even does some daring climbing along one of the Ballard Underground beams and takes a dangerous but choreographed fall onto his mattress. Travis Roderick’s silly depiction of a solicited resident and later snooty replacement tenant provided uncanny comic relief.
But the big reason to see this show is the interscene shadow puppetry, whose combination of light and angling of the sharply oblong 2-D character and scenery puppets to create the looming and fading undulative images we see on the makeshift wall screens, looks mesmerizing. Giant heads, small figures, winding forests, the lingering bug and other pieces weave in and out of the light and screen in little vignettes. Though the actual story is played out by the actors once the lights come up, Hubbard’s puppetry and team of puppeteers intuitively feed us the sense of theme and the direction of the story, while also giving color and a sense of time/place to an otherwise morose drama that, save for a witty opening scene depicting Gregor’s sales failures, never leaves Gregor’s room.
This is weird material, and Wilder Nutting-Heath did all he could to craft a workable script from it. But even though it tells a follow-able story, it does feel like it leaves you hanging… even though that’s more Kafka’s fault for writing a story that doesn’t produce a dramatically satisfying ending. Wilder maximized what he had, and of course Nick Hubbard did a ton with his shadow-puppetry to show us the fractured and overpowering psychological world inside Gregor’s mind. And to say the acting was functional is not in any way to discredit the actors, as the material itself is fairly abstract and even to some extent dry. They mostly did what they could… and Daniel Reaume in particular took hold of the well dressed man’s quasi-fatherly and mentorial role, a fine job of commanding our attention when he took the stage.
One interesting element was the 60-70 minute 1st act, followed by a very short 2nd act that lasted maybe 20-25 minutes, if that, before curtain. The division seemed natural for where in the story the 1st act ended, but it did feel weird to come back and see two short scenes before everyone awkwardly tiptoed out to take their bows.
Should you see it? Fans of Ghost Light’s style of reworking classical material always show up in spades, and in fact the Saturday show I saw sold out the 100 seat Ballard Underground. This show is as always right up your alley if GLT’s work is your thing. You’ll like it. Casual viewers… may not quite get into the story if they don’t know the story, but the use of shadow puppetry in this play is worth a look, and in fact the usage of shadow puppetry in theatre in general is a subject worth expanding upon.