Ari Jacobson strikes an unwieldy pose.
Ari Jacobson strikes an unwieldy pose.

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One morning, when Gregor Samsa awoke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed into a WTF musical.

Well, not quite a musical—like how Franz Kafka’s original German opening to his 1915 classic The Metamorphosis has Gregor turning into a “hideous vermin,” which is not quite an “insect.” Steven Berkoff’s dramatic rendition of the story, which dates back to 1969, is the husk for the Alliance for New Music-Theatre’s production. Rather than start from scratch like other recent shows (a 2010 Synetic Theater original; a traveling dance piece that came to the Kennedy Center in 2013), director Susan Galbraith has tweaked Berkoff’s version and will soon take it to this year’s Prague Fringe Festival. Quite the metamorphosis, indeed: Americans showing the Czechs how they’ve messed with their beloved Kafka.

Forget the optics. Does it work? Yes and no. The music is strange, even for a story about a man-insect: Some lines (“I like milk in the morning”) morph into jaunty half-realized ditties that stick out from the grim tone like sore antennae. But mostly, cellist Schuyler Slack’s dissonant strings—like bugs crawling up your leg—push the text even further toward expressionism. Also, Gregor assumes no costumes or makeup to communicate his transformation. Instead, lead Ari Jacobson contorts his body as he scuttles around, climbing steel ladders that have been placed in the corner of the set designated as his room.

The show uses animation, including some of Kafka’s own drawings, to portray secondary characters and props. Though the timing on the projector-actor coordination was sketchy on the night I saw the show, the idea is a smart one, playing with ideas of isolation and unease. But other changes sit funny. Kafka famously transforms his hero in the story’s first sentence, forcing readers to reckon with the uncertainty of the disfiguration, rather than what came before. Galbraith, by contrast, shows considerably more of Gregor’s pre-vermin life than Kafka intended, beginning with a scene where he and his family sing Sabbath prayers—an overt link to Kafka’s own status as a German Jew in prewar Europe that feels incongruous next to the unholy nature of this transformation. But the truly bizarre choice is to show Gregor playing with his sister Gerta (an exuberant Lily Kerrigan) as their parents smile warmly. Happiness and familial bonding, in a Kafka adaptation? What manner of horror is this?

Galbraith then pushes Gregor aside—his room is tucked into a small cramped corner on the minimalist white set, while his family assumes center stage. Here, Gerta fights with her mother (Pamela Bierly Jusino) and father (David Millstone) over Gregor’s treatment, while Gregor crouches upside-down on a stool, near-motionless, contemplating his new form. The family’s movements are even more animal than Gregor’s: They often exaggerate their actions in ways that recall Pointless Theater’s recent silent-film adaptation Doctor Caligari, and at one point they impersonate chickens.

This could be yet another manifestation of that oft-abused literary term, “Kafkaesque.” (The put-upon hero is sidelined in his own story! O, cruel irony!) Or it could be a misreading of where The Metamorphosis’ true dramatic power lies: not with the family’s debates over whether to accept Gregor in his new body, but with Gregor’s—and Kafka’s—interior alienation outwardly manifest in the most grotesque form imaginable. What this production forgets is that, in this story, the bug is also the best feature.

The practice of taking expensive goods for a spin before making a purchase “on approval” may be out of fashion in the retail world, but think of the Washington Stage Guild’s ongoing reappraisals of vintage theater as a reinvigoration of the concept. Here’s a no-frills rendition of a forgotten early-century British relic. Take it for a spin in a church basement with capable actors. If you don’t like it, well, no reason to stay wedded.

But it will be hard not to fall in love with On Approval, Frederick Lonsdale’s 1927 drawing-room comedy. The play, in which two rich women and two poor men take the then-scandalous step of trying out their prospective matches for a month before considering marriage, is a cheeky good time. Its barbs fly fast and furious, and its wit feels progressive even today. There’s a certain cheesiness to how this cast puts on airs with their highborn accents, but that’s not a bad thing with this material, assuming you have at least a grudging respect for PBS Britcoms.

Battles of the sexes live and die on the strength of their players, and Stage Guild has assembled a strong team. Tricia McCauley, as the older widow Maria, knows her way around a withering put-down. For her crimes of being unmarried and pushing 40, Maria catches a lot of flak in London high society, though it all comes from her archrival George (Dylan Myers), a newly broke duke whose boorish, entitled behavior (“I have a grievance against God’s creatures; I fear they don’t appreciate me”) hasn’t yet caught up to his new financial realities.

If the whole play were just McCauley and Myers tossing barbs at each other like hand grenades, it’d still be a rollicking good time. But there’s another couple in the mix, too: Helen (Megan Dominy), a young heiress who’s starry-eyed for George, and Richard (Paul Edward Hope), a meek dweeb who’s admired Maria from afar for years. When Richard finally confesses his love, Maria sees an opening to test out her “approval” hypothesis, and the entire crew winds up in her country home in the Scottish highlands. Even without sex—Maria makes clear that the men are staying at a nearby hotel, against their wishes—this journey will eventually make fools of them all, as three weeks playing house proves enough to make everyone recoil at the sight of one another.

Director Steven Carpenter’s efficient production gets us through the first act’s snarky introductions before we’ve begun to catch our breath from laughter. In no time, we’re on to the cozy Scottish cabin, a rustic charmer by the company’s longtime scenic designer, Carl F. Gudenius. And soon after, we’ve arrived at Lonsdale’s pleasantly ambiguous ending. It’s all the hilarity of a bad marriage without that icky feeling of watching people make a terrible mistake.

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